We took Hattie and Joe out for dinner last night, which was hugely exciting for them because it involved being up past their normal bedtime. They were a little disappointed that it was still light when we got home, but all in all they were satisfied with their dining experience, which involved apple juice (drinking juice is considered a HUGE treat in our house), and a cool clown-themed ice cream pudding.
The kids have been for dinner in restaurants very infrequently, mainly because we tend to stick closely to their normal routine and try not to miss bedtime, and also because the end of the day has always seemed like the worst possible time to put them into a situation where very good behaviour is expected. Joe tends to get very tired (and grumpy) by late afternoon, and Hattie gets hangry – and both of them have a tendency towards crazy fussy eating, so the prospect of trying to manage their behaviour and find something they’d be willing to eat has has often made the thought of dinners in restaurants far too difficult to contemplate.
However, I am delighted to report that, last night, Hattie and Joe were both angels: not a whinge or a complaint during the 90 minutes we were out (at Dixie Browns, which manages to be both child-friendly and nice for the grownups – we’ll definitely be back). They entertained themselves, ate their dinner, said thank you to the waiting staff when their meals arrived, didn’t make a mess, and generally made my maternal heart swell with pride. Because I know that kids and restaurants can be an alarming and very emotive mix, I thought I’d write about a few things which seem to have contributed to our kids’ ability to function in a civilised manner in public.
The topic of whether kids should be allowed in restaurants comes up in the press on a regular basis, and in any discussion about the suitability of taking kids to restaurants there are inevitably a number of perspectives represented, including:
- The child-free child-haters – who honestly don’t think children should be allowed to appear in public until they’re old enough to vote. I think these people have Issues. I also don’t think there are as many of them as we sometimes fear – they’re just over-represented in the comments section of newspaper articles about children in restaurants.
- The sane child-free majority – the people who don’t have kids of their own, but do recognise that people of all ages are entitled to go to restaurants, and that most parents are doing their best. I really do believe that most people are normal and balanced, and don’t hate parents and children.
- The parents who don’t take their own kids out – who know that it’s fine for other parents to dine with their kids, but don’t want their evening ruined by child-related mayhem when they’ve shelled out for a babysitter in order to enjoy a couple of child-free hours. I have some sympathy for this group, especially at the kind of nice restaurant where people might go for a fancy dinner.
- The reasonably normal parents – who are fairly confident that their young children will behave well in a restaurant, but who know that there’s always a risk of a meltdown and will deal with it as swiftly and effectively as they’re able. This is us.
- The permissive minority – the parents who don’t think it’s really their problem if their children scream, shout, run about, trip up the waiting staff, throw food, openly annoy other diners, etc. These people won’t do much to quell a child-related riot, and if any fellow diners raise their eyebrows they’ll accuse them of being child-haters.
Obviously, I think that people who want to banish children from all public spaces are the type that could benefit from some good counselling to uncover whatever traumas in their own childhoods have made them so extreme in their views, so I’m not going to worry about them. And I also don’t have much time for the permissive parents who won’t do anything to attempt to manage their children’s behaviour, and then accuse everybody else of being anti-children. I don’t want those children around me, and I’m a big fan of little kids. I don’t blame the kids, though – they’re a product of their environment. I tend to think that permissive parenting approaches are misguided in general, which is something I’ll talk about in a future blog post.
Here are the tricks I’ve learned about how to take kids out for meals.
Seriously: when you’ve got young babies, go out. They will sleep in their capsule, and if they need a feed you can do it on the spot. Enjoy these times while your baby or babies are immobile. We didn’t go out much in the evenings when Hattie and Joe were tiny because we dealt with a five-hour ‘witching hour’ for the first few months, and after that we were too bloody knackered to even contemplate it, but we did go for brunches and lunches on a regular basis. If the shit hits the fan you can always make a swift exit. If you’re just out for coffee, order it in a takeaway cup.
When your baby or babies are slightly older, and a bit more likely to cry, leave one parent at the table and send the other one out with the pram – you can text them when the food is ready. Admittedly, this isn’t the most fun cafe outing, but it’s better than sitting at a table with one or two wailing infants.
Be a regular
Cafes are very forgiving of regular customers, in our experience. It’s helpful to be a twin family in this regard, as you tend to stand out (which is a mixed blessing, admittedly). Regulars get served quickly, and the kids get extra marshmellows with their fluffies. #winning
Older babies can be parked in a high chair with toys and some kind of absorbing finger food. Make the most of this time while your child is still restrained in a cafe, because you’ll really miss it when they become a toddler and don’t want to sit still.
Don’t rely on the restaurant or cafe to provide the means to entertain your kids. Yes, it’s great when cafes have a toy corner, or restaurants provide crayons, but sometimes the all of the colouring pencils need to be sharpened, and the soft toys in the basket look like they might carry diseases. Take your own stuff and remove the hassle. I recommend these great Crayola Twistables crayons, because they don’t break or need sharpening, and they’re good for toddlers and preschoolers to hold. They also remove the risk of little Johnny putting felt pen all over a tablecloth or wall.
It’s also very helpful if you can nurture in your small children some degree of self-reliance when it comes to entertainment. Hattie and Joe are obsessed with colouring-in and drawing, and will regularly do it for an hour at a time, so that’s one of the reasons why last night’s dinner was fun for us: they happily coloured in, sometimes with our involvement (I also love colouring-in), and sometimes alone.
And with babies and young toddlers you can usually self-cater with food as well, assuming that you’re buying coffees and grownups’ food.
Don’t be gross
It is NEVER acceptable to change your baby’s nappy anywhere inside a cafe or restaurant, other than in a bathroom. You hear awful stories about people changing babies’ nappies at or on the table… just no. Don’t be That Parent. If the place doesn’t have a change table in the loo, ask them to provide one for the future. And if you’re really caught short, think laterally. We have changed many nappies in the back of the car, or in the Mountain Buggy with the seats laid flat (outside of the cafe, obviously), or even on a changing mat on a park bench outside. Nobody in a cafe should have to see the contents of your child’s nappy, and if you try this and get grief from other patrons you’ve got only yourself to blame. Parents may argue with me on this one, but I’d urge them to remember their pre-child days and contemplate how they would have felt if a poo-filled nappy was changed a metre or two from where they were trying to eat.
Train your toddler(s)
The toddler age is really challenging for many reasons, most of which are incompatible with fun good times in cafes and restaurants. They don’t want to sit still, they’re very vocal if things don’t go their way, and there’s no reasoning with them.
This was cafe crunch time for us. We love a good brunch, and we didn’t want to accept that we couldn’t go to a cafe for a couple of years, so we spent the summer of 2015/2016 having a LOT of cafe trips, for fluffies or ice creams. We accepted that we couldn’t tuck into a nice eggs benedict without risking mayhem – it was all about the short cafe trips. Kids can only learn how to do things if we give them ample opportunity to practise, so we gave Hattie and Joe plenty of time to become familiar with cafe manners. It really worked for us: they’ve been reliably good cafe companions for the past couple of years.
And be realistic. One parent can take the toddler(s) for a walk nearby, waiting for the text to alert them that their food is ready. Opt for an outside table if the weather permits it, so you won’t need to worry so much about noise and mess. Use the pram to provide your young child with a space to sit. Don’t make life harder than it needs to be.
It’s a great idea to put in your request for fluffies or whatever as soon as you’re seated, even before the grownups have looked at the menu. Even the most relaxed kids tend to struggle with patience when they’re hungry.
From the toddler stage onwards we made our expectations clear: inside voices; no leaving the table; and no throwing food or deliberately making a mess. There were many times when these expectations weren’t met, so here’s what we did: we left the cafe. This was both for the sake of everybody else who was trying to enjoy a peaceful flat white, and in order to teach Hattie and Joe that actions have consequences. Luckily for us they’ve been familiar with the concept of consequences from an early age – for example, since they were two they’ve understood that failing to help with tidying up toys will result in toys being confiscated for a while (I tell them that, if I have to pick up the toys unassisted, they become ‘my’ toys).
No, it isn’t fun to have to abandon a nice cafe outing in a storm of toddler screaming, but that’s parenting for you: glamorous and exciting. Many cafes and restaurants will parcel up your half-eaten meal if necessary, so you can finish it later. And believe me, you might feel awkward and conspicuous for bundling your screaming child out of the place, but I guarantee that the staff and fellow diners in that restaurant will think you’re a parent who has their shit together.
Choose your time and place
As I said earlier, we’ve not done many evening outings with the kids because we know that they get tired at the end of the day, and because bedtimes are a Thing in our house. For little kids I really think brunches and lunches are the way forward.
And be sensible about the venue you choose. During the day I feel like pretty much any place but the snootiest restaurant should have a realistic expectation that families may visit. For dinner, it pays to do a bit of research ahead of time. If a restaurant has a children’s menu, it’s probably a good sign that they will be friendly and accommodating when you turn up with a couple of three year olds. Of course, you don’t have to actually order off the children’s menu if you have an aversion to your kids eating chips or pasta – order the smoked salmon bagel for young Curtis if that’s what he’s into – but I think it’s wise to consider these restaurants. They tend to provide things like colouring-in to entertain your kids, and the waiting staff are far less likely to make you feel uncomfortable if you do have a small person staging a meltdown. And they are good at finding suitable tables for families – we were in a booth last night, with Hattie and Joe hemmed in and unable to escape. At Dixie Browns last night they already had the children’s menus, colouring pages, and crayons waiting on our table when we arrived, which was awesome.
I also feel like other patrons at child-friendly restaurants are more likely to be accommodating of families. And there are so many good restaurants around these days that are nice places to dine, but also friendly towards families. Why would you want to take your kids to the kind of places that really can’t cater for children? Save those restaurants for when you’ve got a babysitter.
It goes without saying that you should actively avoid any establishment that discriminates against parents, even if your kids aren’t with you.
We’ve included cafe trips in many playground play dates over the years, with good results. It’s nice for them to be out with their friends, and we certainly haven’t noticed any increased levels of mayhem – I think they all quite like to impress each other with their ‘big kid’ behaviour.
Don’t worry if it’s a disaster
Kids will be kids, and even the most chilled out and accommodating little people will have an off day. Stick to the consequences (Hattie and Joe still know that drama in public will result in a swift exit), say a brief sorry to the waiting staff if the table looks like a murder scene when your family has finished with it, smile at other diners as you carry your wailing child from the restaurant in order to conduct a ‘this is your last chance’ conversation in the car park… just remember that shit happens. The more children get taken out and given an opportunity to exercise their newly-developed social skills, the more sociable they’ll be.
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