I never ate at restaurants as a child. Well, my dad ran restaurants so I ate at his, but I never walked into one, sat at a table and ate a meal like a proper paying customer. The first time I ever went to a restaurant without my dad somewhere in sight was when I got married. I watched my husband and pretended I was allowing him to woo me. In truth, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and didn’t want him to find out!
Life can be so busy and eating out can offer an opportunity for valuable family time. But eating out when you have kids is a big step, and if they’re young, it is has to be a well-organised operation. We’ve become a well-oiled machine after years of practice. That’s what it all boils down to: practice. I started taking my children to restaurants after my eldest’s first birthday, and had a new baby soon after, so I threw myself in at the deep end. We had to keep practising as they grew older, as with each phase came changes at the dinner table, but now, 12 years later, it feels like I did a very brave thing.
At first, I had so many questions: will they have high chairs? Will the kids throw things? Will they even eat? Is there a kid’s menu? What if my kids hate it? What if they cry? What if they get bored? But there was was a simple solution to this predicament: I asked all the questions I could get answers for, and hoped that I could work the rest out.
Once, we went for lunch after a cinema trip. My now seven-year-old was at the age where she still needed a high chair, and for the first time since she was born, she resisted something, beginning with a firm ‘no’ while pointing at the chair. She stood for nearly the whole meal. I tried to make her sit, but, realising we may have a tantrum on our hands, I just left it in the end. But when she realised we were all having a great time colouring, she quickly asked to be put in the chair – disaster and triumph in one afternoon!
Things can be stressful even when your kids no longer need high chairs. Being from a South Asian background, my kids ate rice with their hands, so I dreaded giving them cutlery – an alien concept for them where rice is involved. Preparation is key. When the kids were younger, I always had toys, crayons and colouring books to hand. Now that they’re a bit older, we use eating out as time to catch up with each other, to look up from our phones and simply chat. Being prepared meant that I always felt ready for any scenario, and if it transpired that I wasn’t, I learned for the next time…
Which leads me back to my original point: practice. Every good experience inspired me to do it again, and after every bad one, I was determined that things would go better next time. It’s all worth it to get to a point where you can go to a restaurant and know what to expect from your kids – the food itself is another matter.
Top tips for taking kids to restaurants
1. Do your research – get online and find out about restaurants and what they provide specifically for kids. Reading reviews from parents is always a great place to start – if other parents loathe it, you can save yourself a trip (and some money).
2. Ring in advance – one thing I have learnt is that children have no patience, no matter how much you try to explain (and I’m not much better when I have to wait for an hour with whiny kids). Avoid this by booking in advance, or asking about wait times. If you get a choice of where to sit, go for a table near the window. Even with toys and colouring, sometimes the kids need distracting, and having a good view means you are likely to spot something – easy entertainment!
3. Colouring pencils or crayons are very useful, so if the restaurant provides them, ask for them – that’s what they’re there for! Sometimes on a busy lunch shift staff might forget, but I always ask.
4. Look at the menu in advance so you can figure out what the kids can and will eat before you get there. It also means you can order right away and saves you the trouble of trying to look at the menu and entertain at the same time.
5. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. If you’re at a child-friendly restaurant, chances are they’re used to shouting, noise and a few rogue kids. If you don’t enjoy it, the kids probably won’t either.