Raising Richmond: Hanging on while dining out

Even though my child’s behavior has changed through the years, one constant with me is a fear that people are expecting us to ruin their dining experience when they see a child in tow. I need to let go of this fear.

Lots of parenting topics have fallen off my radar as our daughter’s gotten older, but dining news and stories about going out to eat with small kids is something that still catches my attention. Why? Because we go out to eat as a family at least once a week (or more, because we are super rich). Also, even though my child’s behavior has changed through the years, one thing that has been constant with me is a fear that people are expecting us to ruin their dining experience when they see a child in tow.

I need to let go of this fear. The worst thing that can happen is that she has a big tantrum, but it’s not like we can’t usher her out of the restaurant for some outside yelling time (or, obviously, leave). And if she ruins the dining experience for someone else, I have to remind myself that while I’m sorry if that has ever happened, it probably only happens for people who tend to have experiences easily ruined.

In reality, if we’re in a restaurant for an hour, she might spend one minute of that being loud and fussy. I have been taking my daughter out to restaurants since before I could figure out how to get her car seat out of the car,1 so I have learned a few things to make going out to eat a little less stressful…

I once read that a rule of thumb if you should take a child somewhere is whether or not the restaurant has a kid’s menu. If they don’t, your dumb kid isn’t welcome there. I disagree with this. I’m not going to take my three-year-old to a fancy dinner at 8:00 PM, but I could see taking her or an older version of her to Pasture or The Roosevelt at 5:00 PM. Fear not, people who think kids ruin everything: I prefer to have dinner at cloth-napkin restaurants when I’m not with someone who needs to color until food arrives.

Also, kid’s menus are meaningless to us. My child doesn’t eat anything that’s on a standard kid’s menu. We take her places where she can always get breakfast food, pizza, or some sort of plain protein, i.e. brunch.2 I used to bring food for her to eat, like grapes or a fruit/vegetable pouch, but that seems like poor etiquette now. Also poor etiquette: servers who don’t give our child water or silverware.

I normally pack a small bag filled with books and toys to keep her occupied. Target has a $1 activity pack of a coloring book, crayons, and stickers that always conveniently feature a licensed character that she’s into. That activity pack has gotten us through many meals. She and I went on a date to Thai Diner Too and she (and the table–I cleaned it up) were covered in Dora the Explorer stickers by the time I got the check. If she has something to do before the food comes, she’s usually cool. We try to wait until she needs it to break out the bag. Sometimes she’s perfectly happy eating chips or swinging her knife around.

Another tricky thing about going out with a small child is that our time is scheduled around nap and bedtime. My daughter still requires naps, and when she doesn’t get them, it’s hard on everyone. So pushing the boundaries of nap-thirty or being out at a restaurant when she should be in pajamas aren’t the best ideas. And going out to dinner on an evening when she didn’t have a nap? Whoa, why would we do that? But we have.

We recently took her to Bellytimber for dinner. We hadn’t been there since she was an infant, but pizza is on her shortlist of food she’ll eat. We were late getting her from daycare, and I couldn’t go home after work and get her distractions bag. She didn’t nap that day. She rejected the glass of water the waitress brought her and wanted her water in a highball glass like we had. She was fussy and cried loudly, which I don’t think she ever had done in a restaurant. She didn’t want to go outside and walk around and rejected the snacks I had in my emergency “going out” bag in the car. I was on the verge of leaving, but I selfishly wanted to finish my drink first.

Eventually I broke down and let her watch Netflix on my phone, which I hadn’t let her know was an option before. It kept her calm for the rest of the meal. We went nuts ordering food because of happy hour specials (and because it was a special occasion3), but she refused pizza, nachos, and fries. She only ate chips that came with a sandwich, so I had to give her a mini dinner when we got home. I’m sure our kid made a lot of noise, and we made a lot of noise while attempting to calm her down, but our server was very patient and sweet and we had a whole pizza to eat the next day. It was all OK in the end.

Although that dinner was stressful, it was good for me to experience those parenting moments I’m afraid of to remind myself that it’s not that bad, and nothing in life really changes after you become that loud family with the loud kid at a restaurant. Instead of spending my time worrying about her acting up in restaurants, I should instead remind myself that she typically doesn’t and not let her think think that I think she will.4 Anyway, she can’t learn how to be a person in the world if we only take her to places meant for children.

Going out to eat is still something worth doing. Sometimes my husband and I learn new ways to keep her engaged, we have a fun talk with her about something, we get her to try new food, or she gets excited about what she’s going to get and chirps her order to the waiter/waitress. Plus it’s fun to go out to eat with her buddies. They usually keep each other entertained, and the number of adults who can help keep the kids in their seats is beefed up.

We recently tried The Daily for the first time for brunch with her aunt and we really enjoyed it. My daughter ate a lot of her waffles and fruit, she was given paper and crayons on the way in, and the service was good. As I was walking her back from the bathroom, an older couple stopped me just to say they were laughing at all the things she was doing and wanted to tell me how good she was being. I thanked them, but in my head I thought, “I WIN PARENTING! SHE WINS CHILDHOOD!” It was a nice reminder that when I think she’s being too loud and distracting that I am forgetting that she is just being a kid. That’s OK, too.

  1. My daughter was just weeks old when she and I went out to lunch with my sister, and since I hadn’t left the house with the baby without my husband yet, I didn’t know how to detach the car seat from the base. I was too embarrassed to call my husband, but my sister called her best friend who walked us through it. 
  2. Footnote shotout to Can Can. We took her there with her grandma for the first time when she was almost one. I didn’t realize until then how perfect it is for children: it’s noisy enough there that we can be loud without disturbing others; kids can color on the paper table cloths; and there is bread to eat right away. The waitress also brought our daughter a free croissant at the end of the meal because it was “her first trip to France.” I thought that was really sweet. 
  3. Payday. 
  4. How she acts in the CVS parking lot, in front of the computers at the library, and when she’s asked to leave her friends’ houses carry a different set of expectations. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

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