When I shared the news with family and friends that we were expecting our first baby, it was received with excitement and well wishes. But as I grew bigger and the due date loomed closer, some people seemed eager to remind me that the luxuries I enjoyed in my everyday life were about to come to an end. Travel would change. Sleep would become intermittent. And eating out? Well, that would become impossible.
The first time we took our baby to a restaurant, I was terrified. She was 3 months old and we had flown to Savannah, Georgia, to visit some friends. They took us to a delicious, upscale seafood restaurant with a beautiful view of the river. June had been lulled to sleep in her carseat on the way over, and she stayed asleep as we were seated at our table. It was long enough to lure me into a false sense of security.
What was everyone talking about? I wondered to myself as I watched her angelic little lips purse in her sleep. Eating out with kids is a breeze. I decided to order oysters on the half shell and a glass of white wine.
No sooner did the waiter leave our table than did June suddenly wake up. In an instant, my sleeping beauty turned into a red-faced, crying fury. Other customers began to glance over as I hurried to unstrap the buckles on her carseat and pick her up. I tried to nurse her; she wasn’t hungry. I gave her a toy; she wasn’t interested. Flustered, I picked her up and began to bounce her. Andrew ran to the car for the stroller. Our friends rattled teethers in front of her. Nothing worked.
Over the sound of her cries I heard an annoyed customer say, “Will someone quiet that baby down?” Embarrassed, I took June and walked outside to the back deck, trying to calm her down as I paced back and forth under the hot sun beside the river.
Finally, the bouncing and shushing and patting seemed to work, and June went quiet, staring at me with her big blue eyes like she couldn’t understand what the problem was. I took a deep breath. I knew my oysters and wine were waiting at the table, but I was terrified to go back in. What if she started crying again and I couldn’t calm her down? What if everyone in the restaurant thought I was a bad mom? And the real question underneath: if my baby cried and I didn’t know why, was I a bad mom?
I felt like kicking myself for ever thinking I could eat at a restaurant with a baby. I was about to go in and suggest we have the meal boxed up to go when a kind lady came out of the restaurant’s back door.
“I just wanted to tell you that you are doing a wonderful job,” she said as she came over to me. “You’re taking such good care of your baby.”
“I’m sorry if her crying bothered you,” I said, feeling sheepish.
“You shouldn’t apologize for a baby’s cry,” she said, looking intently into my eyes. “Babies are a part of life. And it’s good for us to remember it.”
She then held the door open for me to go in and enjoy my lunch. And while I did get indigestion from eating while bouncing to keep June happy throughout the meal, we made it through without any other big hiccups. I left the restaurant feeling like our family had accomplished something. Eating out with kids was possible. And maybe, with some preparation and practice, it could even be enjoyable.
New Experiences and Opportunities
It’s been three years since I talked to that lady outside the restaurant, and we’ve added another baby to our crew in that time. My husband and I frequent restaurants these days with a 3 year old and 1 year old in tow. We don’t hit the fanciest restaurants in town, but we don’t limit our repertoire exclusively to “child-friendly.”
It’s not always easy, but eating out as a family has provided us with so many wonderful memories. It teaches our kids they are an important part of our world, and that we want to share our love of food with them. It teaches them to look people in the eye when they order, to say “please” and “thank you,” to begin to understand the art of conversation, and to try something new.
Learning that it’s O.K. for things not to go according to plan has helped me embrace, rather than fear, what could happen in a restaurant. Babies cry. Toddlers spill milk. There are accidents and diaper blowouts and the occasional temper tantrum. We can choose to adjust accordingly, rather than worry things aren’t going the way we want them to.
My husband and I try to be prepared for every possible scenario at restaurants, with extra clothes, wipes, and pacifiers, but when none of that works, we have to smile at each other and say, “Kids are kids. And that’s O.K.”
To pass the time between ordering and the food arriving, we play games, like “I spy” or “What’s missing?” on the table. We read books, we give them papers to color on while we talk. When the food is taking too long or our girls are particularly exhausted, we take turns walking them around the restaurant, to meet the other waiters, or the host, or sometimes the chef.
When I walk them around like this, I hope somewhere in their little minds they are understanding that I want them to know what goes into preparing a meal for someone. I want to spark in them an appreciation, however small, for how words on a menu become food on a plate.
What I love most about eating out with our girls is that it gives them the opportunity, in a small way, to see a part of the world that is different from their own kitchen. They get to interact with other foods and people they don’t yet know. They get to try something they wouldn’t have at home, and hopefully enjoy it.
I am grateful for the perspective the woman at the seafood restaurant gave me: babies and children are a part of life. My children don’t need to be hidden from the world. They need to experience and belong to it.
When I put them in the seat next to me with a sippy cup of milk and a children’s menu, I teach them that they do.
Tips for Eating Out With Young Children
- Come prepared. Bring books, small toys, or crayons for children to play with while you wait for food. If they’re old enough, ask them about what they see or smell in the restaurant.
- Encourage them to order. Teach your children to look the waiter or waitress in the eye and ask for what they want, and to say please and thank you.
- Introduce them to the staff. If you find yourself waiting a while for dinner, walk your kids around. Most restaurant staff are welcoming and friendly to children, and it’s fun for kids to piece together all that goes into preparing a meal.
- Remember that it’s O.K. if it goes wrong. Kids are kids, and unpredictable at times. It’s O.K. if your baby cries or your toddler has a spill. Don’t let that stop you from trying to eat out again. Out of practical consideration for others, we do clean up any spills our toddler makes, and if someone is throwing a temper tantrum, we take them out of the restaurant until they calm down.
- Enjoy it. Eating out is a luxury, and an incredible opportunity to share with your children. When they see you relaxing and having fun, they relax, too. Take time to make sure your children know how happy you are to share this experience with them.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com