Dining out with little ones

I had another post all ready for today, but then I had to jump into the fray about the Pennsylvania restaurant that is banning children under 6 starting Sunday.

As the mother of a child under 6 (with still nearly 4 years to go to get to 6), I should probably be offended by this.  But, to be honest with you, I’m not.  Here’s the thing.  I have a pretty well behaved toddler.  And she’s gone out to dinner with us a lot.  However, I don’t expect that other diners want to hear her cries or entertain her while we eat. We also stick to family friendly places.  I have a list of what restaurants offer free or discounted meals to kids throughout the week that I often refer to, in fact.  (I’m also frugal like that!)

I know, however, that not all kiddos are like mine.  Some are noisy.  Some scream incessantly.  Some throw tantrums.  Some aren’t happy to sit in their high chairs for very long.  And, here’s the other truth: my child isn’t perfect.  She’s been upset.  We cut a dinner at Texas Roadhouse short once when she was about six months old because the loud music and birthday “Yee-haw” at the next table was too much for her to handle.  We realized then that the days of her sleeping in her car seat through dinner were ending.

I have also learned a few things along the way to make dining out with a little person a little easier. Take or leave them as you will.  Perhaps McDains Restaurant should have tried posting such a list of rules first.  Just a thought.

Go at a good time for the kiddo. I’m sort of a schedule Nazi.  My child is very schedule oriented (nice, because I am, too), so we adhere to her schedule very strictly.  Almost never do we change up her nap time, bed time or meal times.  If we are going to a restaurant, we go during one of her meal times.  Usually we go during dinner because by lunch time she is winding down and ready for her nap (which immediately follows lunch).

For example, when Lexiana was about nine months old we went out for a pizza lunch with friends after church on Sunday.  We knew that usually she was tired after being in the nursery.  And we knew that she would be hungry, but we thought she would last the 45 minutes it would take us to eat.  We were wrong.  It was a miserable lunch.  Between my husband and I talking to her, carrying her around and rocking her, we were able to keep her distraction of other patrons to a minimum, but we hardly got to eat.  Just now at 21 months is she able to go out for lunch after church if we keep it low key and quick.  We don’t go often, though, because we know it’s not a good time for her.

Bring along some snacks. This is especially important if the kiddo isn’t yet eating all table food.  When Lexiana was still on baby food, I kept some jars of baby food in the diaper bag.  I made sure to also always have her bottle, a bib and a burp cloth.  Now, I take a sippy cup with us (usually I bring my own milk because I’m cheap and because then she can have it right away) and a vinyl-like bib.  I also keep snacks in the diaper bag to pacify her if she’s extra hungry.  She can munch on some Goldfish while we order.  If it’s a restaurant I know doesn’t have much by the way of fruit (like said pizza place), I even bring fruit cups with us since my child is obsessed with fruit.  I keep a toddler fork and spoon in the bag as well.  She can manage regular silverware just fine most times, but just last week I was at a restaurant that didn’t bring her silverware.  The waitress was nowhere in sight, so I pulled out her silverware to dole out her pineapple to keep her pacified.

Find a way to entertain the kiddo. Before Lexiana was eating too much table food, we would feed her her baby food while we waited for our food to come.  But, then she could easily get bored while we were eating.  So, we invested in a highchair with detachable toys on the tray.  This gave her something to play with that she couldn’t drop on the ground and have me worry about being dirty.  It very quickly became our main highchair, and we are still using it now that she’s older.  We don’t use the toys any more, but we definitely use the chair.  A highchair/shopping cart cover can offer the same thing.

Now that Lexiana is older, I’ve found other ways to entertain her.  We bring in books (she loves them) sometimes.  I carry a couple of extra crayons in the diaper bag for those restaurants that don’t give them out with kids’ menus.  I always have some sort of old grocery list or something in my purse she can draw on.  And, a lot of times now we just talk to her.  She is a chatty girl.  We also try to seat her so that she is looking at something of interest like out the window at cars driving by.

Keep it familiar. Not everyone wants to carry in their own highchair, I suppose, but I love it.  It keeps things familiar for Lexiana and I really do think that helps.  All we need is a regular chair to strap it to.  She is in her usual seat.  We know it’s safe and clean.  We can put food directly on her tray like we do at home.  It’s familiar to both her and us.  Now that she’s older we sometimes go tray-less and let her eat off plates on the table, but she’s still in her usual seat.  I don’t think she’s ready for booster seats without straps like most restaurants have.  Then again, I’m also overprotective.

Don’t dawdle. We used to linger a bit after dinner out and talk.  In fact, on date nights we still do this.  But, when we have the kiddo along, we don’t.  She does well to wait in her highchair for her food and then eat.  She doesn’t want to spend another 20 minutes in the highchair or restrained in our laps while we talk.  So, when we’re finished we leave.

Keep interactions with other diners to a minimum. I think my child is the cutest ever.  She’s also the smartest and funniest.  However, the random strangers at the table beside me probably don’t think so.  Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, but I don’t like to interact a lot with other people’s kids when I’m out places.  When I’m at the doctor’s office, I read a book.  When I’m at a restaurant, I avoid eye contact with a chatty, interactive kid.  I spare other patrons the same with my child.  Sometimes people wave to her or stop by to comment to or about her, but unless they initiate contact, I don’t let her wander over to them or engage with them in any way.  I don’t stop by their table and talk about her or anything like that.

If it all goes south, leave. Like I mentioned in the beginning, we really did cut dinner short once because we just couldn’t get her to settle down.  And there are times when you do everything right and the kiddo still doesn’t cooperate for whatever reason.  Then, leaving is the best option.  That can mean that everyone leaves and goes home.  Or that can mean that you take turns taking the child outside, to the waiting area or to the car to settle him or her down.  Everyone understands that children get upset.  But, parents still have an obligation to adhere to good manners and not ruin everyone’s night out.

The bottom line is that kids can be tricky diners.  They can be unhappy and fussy.  I’ve found following the above guidelines works for my child — for now.  But, I know that might change.  We’ve already adapted a few times throughout her short life as we get to different stages.  And if we have another child someday, none of this might work.  In the meantime, I kind of can’t fault a restaurant for not allowing children in its restaurant if it’s been burned too many times with bad behavior.  This is an instance of too many bad seeds ruining it for the rest of us.  At the end of the day, parents are still the responsible party and the ones who need to make sure their kids aren’t hurting other people in any way.

What do you think?

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