The first meal out for our family after having a baby was sushi. Our newborn slept in her car seat and I gorged on the fish that had been banned from my diet during pregnancy. It was bliss for everyone. Our last venture to that same sushi bar (last month) was a bit more raucous, with the girls not so quiet now. But they sat at the bar, ordered their favourite sashimi, and flirted with the host who gave them candy.
We can't imagine our lives without the opportunity to take the kids out for dinner. If we didn't take them we might not go ourselves with limited babysitting in town! But if you want to take your kids to a restaurant, whether it involves a giant golden M or serves fois gras, there are some basic guidelines. These are guidelines for parents, not rules for kids.
1. Start at Home
If you want your kid to sit at the table, eat, and not run around and scream at a restaurant table then you need to expect that behaviour at home as well. I know many a parent who struggles to keep their kids at the table, regardless of where they are sitting. While I can't provide any tips for getting them to stay in their seat - other than expecting the behaviour and enforcing it - if your kid can't sit at the table for 20 minutes then a sit down restaurant isn't going to be a successful venture for you.
2. Revise Your Dinner Expectations
When you take your kids out to dinner with you then your experience will not be that same as dinner out with your partner. There is no lingering over dessert, conversations are not usually about politics or money, and you will likely eat pretty fast. Dinner out with the family isn't romantic, but it can be fun. Keep your expectations in check, as well as your timing.
3. It's all in the Timing
Knowing when your kids need to eat and when they'll crash is important if you choose to eat out. Don't arrive at the restaurant at 6 if they are used to dinner on the table at that time. Be prepared to order an appetizer or the entire meal when they come by to take a drink order. And ask for the check right after your meal is served in case you need to make a speedy exit.
4. Choose Wisely
There is no need to limit your family meals out to fast food or even chain restaurants. Steakhouses, greasy spoons, and yes, fine dining are all acceptable. Do not take your kids to the best place in town if all they've ever eat are chicken fingers, you need to work up to that. Consider going to a nicer restaurant on a weekday, not on typical date nights on the weekend. Preview menus on-line or with a drive by to ensure there is something your kids will likely enjoy. Try brunch instead of dinner, it's faster, more likely to have preferred options, and is a more casual environment - even in a fancier restaurant.
5. The Art of Conversation
I'm not a fan of bringing toys and such to the restaurant, but I can see the benefit for other families. A run of the mill restaurant will sometimes provide the menu that can be coloured, or you could bring your own colouring book. Books, a small doll, a random car, or even an electronic device might also be effective in occupying your kids while you wait for food. It should go away when the food arrives though. We take the time in a restaurant to have a conversation - as effective as that is with a 3 and 5 year old. I also don't want to set the precedent that toys are commonplace when you go out for dinner. Each family will have to decide what is appropriate.
6. Lose the Kids Menu
Even the fanciest of restaurants sometimes have a kids menu. Ignore it. It may be fine dining, but they are often dumbing down the food in addition to smaller portion sizes. Instead, look to the appetizer or soup/salad portion of the menu. Alternatively, you can order one main course and split it among two or three children. Do not relegate your kids to a diet of chicken fingers or grilled cheese sandwiches. Or at least, save those for the nights you stay home when you don't feel like cooking.
7. Be Prepared to Leave
Yup, be prepared to get up and walk out without dinner. If your kids are misbehaving, whining, or generally being bad or disruptive, be prepared to leave without eating. Aside from showing restauranteurs and other patrons that you have control over the situation, you are also showing your kids that certain behaviour is not tolerated. Whether you let them eat dinner at home after that is another matter. (I would not, but that's me.) If you want your restaurant experience to be successful and repeated, then you need to set the precedent.
On the recent debate on Q, with Jian Gomeshi, Emma Waverman, and Simon Majumdar, the host and guests talked about a ban on kids in restaurants. While I squarely believe in the comments made by Waverman, it was this quote from Majumdar that sums it up. Restaurants want to ban kids, primarily because of crying and bad behaviour, and that "Boils down to wretched parenting."
If you want to take your kids out of the house - and we all need to at times - then you need to step up to the plate, plan ahead, and be clear on your behavioural expectations with them. A restaurant isn't always a break at dinnertime, don't treat it that way unless the kids are at home with the babysitter. Dinner out with the family is an opportunity for exploration, conversation, and treats.