On some recent Gotham staycations, we splurged and took the kids out to dinner, and I almost immediately regretted it. Not more than a few minutes after being seated, water glasses were spilled, the jarring sound of falling silverware rang out through the dining rooms, and two small, but shrill, voices called out in succession, “When will our food be here?” “Well, soon,” I said, mopping up the spill, groping under the table for a dropped knife. “But we have to order first. Now how about we take a look at this coloring pad and markers that we brought along?”
Yes, the “restaurant bag”—a canvas bag we keep by the door filled with art supplies, stickers and at least one Etch A Sketch—is one of those genius creations of my wife, who is a wonderful parent, partly because she is really good at anticipating a child’s next move. As much as I’d like to belief this was my wife’s invention, I recently learned that she isn’t alone. My friend and Edible colleague, Gabrielle Langholtz, recently sent us a book as a New Year’s present. She called it her “restaurant book,” and it’s her secret weapon when vying for her daughter’s attention at doctor’s offices, on subways, or in that precarious time at restaurants between sitting down and the first food arriving.
Why take kids out in the first place?, you might ask. It exposes them to interesting eating experiences, and prepares them to be future dining companions (a good complement to kitchen chores). It also gives us a welcome break from the mountains of dishes and food-off-the-floor sweeping that accompanies home cooked meals. Not to mention the fact that if my wife and I want to head out for a meal, it’s often more economical to bring the kids than to hire a sitter for a few hours: Assuming a 3-hour dinner outing, at $15-20 per hour for the sitter, the kids could eat at least $45 worth of food, which they rarely do.
But just like the “restaurant book,” there are tips and techniques that any wise parent should consider when eating out with kids—whether at an eco-healthy pizza joint like Foody’s in Water Mill or a bustling urban eatery like the Plaza Food Hall (if you dare annoying tourists at nearby tables).
1) Pack a restaurant book or other parental aid. Many restaurants have paper placemats for drawing and crayons to share. In a pinch, you can ask your server for a pen and paper and improvise with some tic-tac-toe or hangman. At the motley-menued and remarkably kid-friendly Plaza Food Hall, we rode the escalator up and down as we waited for our squid stirfry, pizza, burgers and dumplings to arrive. At The Dutch, the kids exhausted their supply of coloring books and ultimately settled into staring at grandma’s iPhone as the adults sipped their second round of drinks and settled the bill.
2) Arrive early and order quickly. 5:30 at many restaurants is fondly referred to as “family hour,” as parents with young kids arrive just as the restaurant opens and are often done with their meal before the “adult” customers arrive. Such early seatings can offer families a relatively quiet time and can allow you to score tables at such hot restaurants as the Dutch and Back Forty. Still, don’t be afraid to order quickly, including asking the waitress to bring an appetizer or two before you’ve ordered the mains. Moreover, it’s often helpful to ask your server to bring the food when it’s ready and not worry about coursing it out. Such direction may seem pushy, but everyone—server and eater—will appreciate it. In fact, a recent pizza-making night at Nick & Toni’s (held every Wednesday in winter), my wife and I each got the 3-for-$30 prix fixe. And in what we are now calling the “coursing trick,” we asked the waitress to bring our dessert for the kids, just as we were getting our second course. We ended up finishing at the same time and still got a spoonful of the kids ice cream before paying the bill.
3) Order wisely. There’s no reason to stick to the kids menu, if they have one. In fact, we generally try to avoid it since the dishes are often uncreative and not completely nourishing—plain pasta, burgers, fried chicken, French fries, other fried things. At Cascabel Taqueria, although the kids liked the sound of the tacos, they ended up being too spicy. So we took the advice of a nearby table with kids and fell back on a couple orders of the quesadillas and guacamole. As we do at home, we try to order a range of small plates, on the assumption that choices mean the kids will at least eat something. And if you’re debating between two items for yourself, go with the one your kids might like. Recently, while considering ordering a bowl of mussels, Clio overhead and said how much she loved mussels. I had no idea and when the bowl arrived, she sat on my lap and matched me mussel for mussel, even dipping bread in the broth that remained.
4) Sit intelligently. Especially with young children who need attention and assistance, it’s good idea to ideally place one adult on either side of the child. And when sitting in booths, stick the kids on the inside. At one recent dinner, we made the mistake of putting Clio on the outside. During meals she can be “a runner,” and by the time one of us could get out to chase after her she was already on the other side of the restaurant, wrecking havoc with the waitstaff and other dinners. Eating out with infants or kids who are still not mobile can actually be quite easy; I still fondly recall a romantic dinner at Prune during which Clio slept in a sling through the bustling din.
5) Hold onto dishes during the meal and plan for leftovers. Your table will feel crowded, especially if your kids like to fiddle with extra tableware (which you should feel free to gather in one corner or ask the waitstaff to remove). But since kids often eat at their own pace, rather than in neat courses, it’s important to hold onto dishes, consolidating food, if needed. At Back Forty, the kids initially passed on a plate that included clams, oysters and Gulf shrimp, but ended up gobbling their fill just before dessert arrived.
6) Reinforce good habits. Eating out isn’t just a chance to expand your child’s palate. It’s an opportunity to reinforce good eating habits. Show them how to be polite to the server, how to choose what they’d like to eat and then be patient for it, how to keep their napkin in their lap, and how to say thank you when all is done. Although Clio and Cyrus are both good oyster eaters, the lemon topped mollusks at Red Farm inspired them both to spit them onto the table in unison. We reminded them that if they didn’t like something they should discretely spit it onto their plates. (After rinsing the oysters with some drinking water, the kids finished them.)
7) Go with the flow. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the fact that restaurant meals with kids—just like eating with them at home—are often nonlinear experiences that challenge a parent to remain calm. At Red Farm, the kids were so wildly distracted by the hustle and bustle that they ate very little until the very end of the meal when they happily and efficiently gobbled most of the leftovers just as we started to ask the waiter to wrap it up. And after watching Sarah and I use chopsticks during the meal, Clio managed to scrape up some rice using them, eliciting applause from the waitstaff.
Or consider our trip to the Museum of Natural History during the same staycation. We carefully mapped an itinerary that would bring us to see all the animals and exhibitions that our children requested—from the Hall of Fishes to the North American Animals. But Clio and Cyrus were infatuated with our first stop at the Dinosaurs–asking endless questions, making multiple laps around the room–we never made it to the next three stops on our itinerary. At 11:30 a.m., when hunger pangs started to distract us, we beat a path to the exit and beat the lunch crowd at Shake Shack.