We’ve been there, worn the T-shirt, and had food thrown at it. Yes, dining out with the little monsters – sorry – one’s offspring – is often an idea that works well in theory and that’s about it. A family meal out, more often than not, quickly descends into a chimps’ tea party – only far more messy and stressful.
And while this applies to both smart restaurant dining and casual fast-food joints, the burger bars frequented by hordes of hollow-eyed parents at a weekend do tend to be more tolerant. By the time you leave, ‘snotty Sue’ will have eaten her body weight in chicken nuggets and managed to tile the floor with her French fries, while ‘tantrum Timmy’ (covered in ketchup and chewing the paper napkins) is kicking off because the toy in his so-called happy meal is ‘the same one as last time!’ But at least no one in those places bats an eyelid.
Dining out with kids is a fairly predictable process that results in neither parent talking to each other because both are too busy taking turns to reprimand the children. ‘Don’t lick the salt’, ‘Don’t poke the baby with your fork’ and – our personal favourite – ‘There is no dog under the table – so stop feeding it!’ Either that or they’re enduring the old ‘walk the floor’ routine with toddling Tommy, who reacts to the highchair as if it’s some kind of torture device, manages to twist himself half out of it and eventually has to be removed before all the other diners go deaf or the lost blood supply in his legs results in gangrene.
He spends the rest of the meal waddling precariously between waiters’ legs (the ones carrying huge trays of stacked plates) or taking his chances next to the ‘swing both ways very frequently’ doors to the kitchen. And his pièce de resistance is to fill his nappy just as your hot soufflé pudding arrives. No longer pretending to enjoy yourselves, you admit defeat, pay the bill and leave before your final coffee comes to the table. But don’t think the horrific experience ends there. At home, you’ll worry for days whether bubba’s dodgy nappies are the result of the e-coli picked up from licking the restaurant carpet.
This is often the painful reality of eating out with nippers. But it doesn’t have to be such a nightmare – honest. First of all, remember a good family restaurant should be just that. The experience should be as pleasurable for mum and dad as it is for ankle biters. Food, of course, is important (we’ll get to that bit on page 20), but opt for a family-friendly eatery where diners under 120cms tall are welcomed with a smile and, perhaps, a few crayons. This doesn’t mean you have to limit yourselves to pop-art coloured, noisy canteens where a bouncy castle takes pride of place. Cheery, child-friendly waiters who coo over your kids rather than give them cool ‘don’t you dare dribble on the damask’ glances are a good start. Clean highchairs in abundance are another positive sign and prompt service is essential (even if it’s just a speedy, sanity-saving bread basket). Restaurants that get our ‘family friendly’ seal of approval are ones that recognise the fact that kids need to be occupied if their bottoms are to remain firmly on their seats. Whether that comes in the form of good food, a colouring book, curios on the walls or a waitress who just loves kids – it doesn’t matter, as long as at least one of these boxes is ticked.
Some degree of tolerance (should the rugrats fancy a game of ‘let’s run around screaming as loudly as we can’), is another plus point but, of course, the buck stops with you. Just because a friendly waiter is willing to pat your little horror on the head, doesn’t mean all parenting responsibilities fly out the window. Remember other diners are just as entitled to a stress-free experience as you are, so don’t let your badly behaved brood spoil it for everyone.
Pick a family-friendly restaurant (see our selection on page 20-23) then follow our tips to ensure a relaxing experience for all.
Follow their routine
Generally, kids won’t appreciate waiting an extra hour for their meal just because mum and dad don’t feel like cooking for them at home. If you are planning to eat out, try to do it at normal meal times. Wait longer and you risk low blood sugar levels leading to all sorts of naughty behaviour and hunger-induced crankiness.
Be prepared. Just because your favourite restaurant is known for its super fast service, doesn’t mean this will always be the case. A member of staff down and a large party coming in at the same time as you may cause a delay, so keep a supply of snacks to hand (crackers, raisins, a banana or orange segments are great) to keep the wolf from the door and prevent your kids from losing the plot before the real food arrives.
Familiar snacks are also great fillers for picky eaters who refuse to eat their food ‘because it looks different’.
As a rule, even family-friendly restaurants don’t supply kids’ crockery and cutlery. If you don’t mind junior wielding gigantic, stainless steel knives and forks and can cope with the prospect of him smashing his plate Greek style, that’s fine. But some parents might find the food goes down easier with familiar plastic spoons and the usual Winnie the Pooh unbreakable bowl. A bib from home for messy eaters is also an essential item – especially for tots who get funny about having strange napkins tucked around their chins.
Good old crayons don’t always do the trick – especially if the baby would rather chew on them than his food. Keep a few small toys in your handbag – a couple of cars, the odd action figure or a small doll and accessories will help keep them amused. Wipe-clean books that can handle food splats are another good option. Try to keep a few toys aside that are only for playing with when you eat out. This gives them extra novelty value because the children only get to play with them occasionally.
Don’t allow yourselves to get stressed out. The kids will be excited and they’ll want to explore their surroundings. And it’s normal for them to turn their noses up at unfamiliar food. If they only eat a quarter of what’s on their plate, it’s usually because they are too interested in everything else going on. For parents, the benefits of eating out include not having to do the washing up (or hose the floor down afterwards), but if you’re looking for a serene, civilised meal where witty conversation flows between you and your spouse, frankly, you’re setting the bar too high. Book a babysitter instead.
Quit while you’re ahead
You’ve had a fairly stress-free meal, the kids have eaten most of their food and managed to keep their bums on seats. It’s all gone swimmingly – so you think you’ll order that extra coffee. Don’t do it! Be thankful that lunch has pretty much gone to plan. If you force them to sit still for another 20 minutes, you risk ruining the entire dining experience. It only takes one small child having a tantrum to give you – and those sitting near you – indigestion. Leaving the restaurant with a bad taste in your mouth would be a shame after all you’ve achieved. So, bite the bullet and get your after-lunch caffeine from a vendor that does coffee on the go.