Sitting across the table from my dinner companion, I was slightly bewildered by his lack of manners. He wouldn’t look me in the eye; he was fidgety; and when the waitress came over to take our order, he flashed a flirty smile. But it was when she handed him some crayons and a coloring booklet that things went downhill fast.
One by one, he smugly hurled them toward the floor, perfecting his whip with the skill of an ultimate Frisbee thrower. After he went through the entire pack of crayons, he turned his attention to the piece of paper he was meant to draw a masterpiece on – instead he attempted to crumble it into a ball and tossed it off the table, knocking his juice box to the ground in the process. If that wasn’t enough, he decided to pound his fists on the table while laughing and screeching with wild abandonment.
My son, age 20 months, managed to not only embarrass my husband and myself, but also turned the heads of everyone sitting within a five-and-a-half-yard radius. As anyone with young children (especially toddlers) can relate to, braving a restaurant meal can be a source of anxiety for many parents.
So why do we do it? After all, nobody wants to be the object of dirty looks or ridicule. Our goal is certainly not to ruin anyone’s meal. Before a child came onto the scene, I was one of those child-free snobs who used to wonder why on earth any parent would subject themselves to a train wreck scene like this, and potentially spoil another couple’s night out – especially when other diner patrons may have left their own kids at home? Of course, my views changed once I had my own child, and the justification is resolutely: “We need a break, too!” Plus, it’s the closest thing to Friday night happy hour we get these days.
However, from observation and experience, I’ve discovered a few key tips to make the dining experience enjoyable for not only your own family but for those suckers who happen to be seated next to you.
Rule #1 – Avoid taking your child out for dinner if he is tired.
This may be hard to swallow for some, but your child’s needs come first. Try to work around his nap and bedtime schedule, so if he normally naps from 1-3 p.m., try having a late lunch after he wakes up well-rested; conversely, if he goes to bed at 7:30 p.m., try to have an early-bird dinner around 4:30 or 5 p.m. Eating at off-peak times will also ensure you are seated and served more quickly. If you have a baby, make sure he is bottle-fed or breast-fed before you leave the house – he will be relaxed and maybe even sleep throughout the meal.
Rule #2 – Go to a family friendly restaurant.
It may be self-explanatory, but save the five-star, candlelit, table-clothed restaurant for “date” night. Make sure the restaurant stocks high chairs and has a children’s menu, and try to get a corner booth or table, in case your child begins to fuss. It’s also helpful to order your child’s meal first, in case crankiness or hunger creeps up quickly.
Rule # 3 – Load up on supplies.
Small toys, books, and, yes, even an iPad are excellent choices to allow your child to distract himself. You may get odd looks on the latter (“Electronics for a toddler? What lazy parenting!”), but when you can enjoy a glass of wine with your partner and some semblance of conversation – even for 20 minutes before the meal comes – you will easily learn to ignore the stink eye being thrown your way. Besides, the couple seated next to you is probably just lamenting about the lack of technological choices back when their kids were young. Whatever you do, make sure the toy or program is not loud or overly musical so as not to interrupt your neighbors’ conversations.
Also stock up on diapers, wipes and don’t forget a bib and a sippy cup. I carry around a suction-cupped placement so my son can make as much of a mess as he needs to while eating. Afterward, I always clean up the surrounding floor where food is thrown or dropped out of simple courtesy to the server.
Rule # 4 – Tag-team with your partner.
Little ones have short attention spans so you should be prepared to trade-off on walks throughout the meal. If there is an outdoor area, it will offer a change of scenery and let them burn off their energy. Instead of feeling uncomfortable dining alone, relish the break. After all, when was the last time you ate your dinner in peace and quiet? However, if your child throws an all-out tantrum, then …
Rule # 5 – Be prepared to bolt.
Even the best-laid plans can go array. If a colossal meltdown erupts, just quietly and quickly scoop up your child and leave the restaurant; and don’t forget to the tip the server.
If you feel like you need to apologize to fellow diners on your way out, you may be surprised by their responses – they may even garner a few sympathetic looks that indicate, “I’ve been there too.”
It’s not the worst thing in the world to have to eat and run. Get your food wrapped up to go, and once your child is fast asleep at home, bring out the candles, some wine, and turn it into that much-deserved “date night.”