This blog entry is about dining with babies, which I'll define as children under 18 months, NOT adult babies who embarrass their party by complaining to wait staff about every little imperfection in their meal and experience (although I am planning an upcoming blog on those babies too).
I never gave much thought to dining with small children until my wife and I had our first child nine months ago. I had heard horror stories from other parents about bringing infants out to eat but it didn't really hit home until we started bringing our son to restaurants.
I remember one early dining experience when my brother-in-law came to visit from Florida when my son was about two months old. We went to a family-style restaurant and were seated in the corner behind the bar, which I've come to realize seems to be the preferred place to stick a family with a young baby.
My son started off OK in his carrier. Then he began to cry so my wife picked him up. He kept crying so we gave him a bottle. Then he began shrieking.
A group of three women were dining at a table nearby. The women proceeded to do what I've come to realize is pretty much the standard response from parties of single adults: They continue sitting with their bodies facing one another as if they are still talking to each other, but their heads are slightly tilted towards you and your shrieking baby. These people typically try to act like they might be looking at something past you. My theory is this is a defense tactic so if you go, "Hey, what's up? You never seen a baby before?!" they can say, "Oh no, I was just looking at the nachos the guy next to you was eating" or "Oh I was just looking for my car in the parking lot. I thought I might have left the lights on."
On this occasion, my son didn't stop crying and my wife ended up taking him out to the car. I had to bring her meal out in a to-go box a little while later.
Fortunately for us, this was really the only truly bad experience we had taking our son out to dinner. But the last nine months have taught me some good tricks for avoiding meltdowns in restaurants. I thought some parents who are new to dining with their baby or others who are still a little traumatized from an early bad experience might enjoy them. Here they are:
1.) Go to loud restaurants – No one is going to hear your baby screaming if the music in the restaurant is loud and everyone else is screaming too. Mexican restaurants seem to be good for this—the music is generally louder and Mexican food tends to bring out the partier in all of us. If you want, go a step further and ask the hostess to sit you next to the dozen-and-a-half 20-something-your-olds there for a bachelorette party, sharing a couple pitchers of sangria.
2.) Bring meals, snacks and bottles – This should be pretty self-explanatory and a no-brainer. The problem tends to be when you get home from work Friday night and decide spur of the moment to go out. You rush out the door and realize you didn't pack some necessities. The good thing is this really is the type of mistake most people only make once.
3.) Bring toys – I think the expression is idle hands are the devil's workshop.
4.) Go out just before nap time – It was a great discovery when my wife and I realized we could bring our son into a place just before nap time, give him a bottle, then watch him sleep in his carrier while we enjoyed our meal. This doesn't always work, but when it does, it's pretty sweet.
5.) Avoid restaurants that are known for slow service – The problem here is your baby's been good the whole meal, then he starts getting fussy while you're waiting for the check. Minutes pass, the check still isn't there and your baby's all out crying and screaming. If a place is known for laid back or slow service, my advice would be stay away.
6.) Order finger food side dishes off the menu – Finger foods keep a baby who's old enough to have them occupied for a while. Most restaurants at least serve sides of French fries. Fries aren't the best thing for your baby but you're not doing it all the time. And if the grandparents give you a problem about it, remind them about all the junk they gave you when you were a kid.
7.) Never dine after 7 p.m. – This may seem like a no-brainer but it's easy to make this mistake (I know I did!). This is the scenario: Your kid's in a good mood, it's 6:50, and you think: why not? Then halfway through the meal, your child's fussing and you're thinking the waitress can't bring you the meal and the check fast enough.
8.) Try going out to breakfast more – This may not be true of all babies, but my son is probably in his best mood of the day right after he's had breakfast and before his morning nap. Consequently, breakfasts out have been some of our most enjoyable dining experiences. Try it sometime if you haven't already.
9.) Take a risk on a restaurant that doesn't get big crowds – This can be a gamble because sometimes restaurants that aren't busy aren't busy because they're not good. But there are some places that are very good, but because of a bad location or the fact that they specialize in a type of food that isn't particularly popular at the moment they tend to have a small crowd. Being in a restaurant with a small crowd or no crowd will make you feel more at ease and less on guard for a potential baby meltdown. And maybe you'll get introduced to a new place you love that you wouldn't have tried otherwise.
10.) Bring your baby to a pub – OK, I know some people will have a problem with this suggestion. But I'm not telling you to order your baby a beer! I was a little resistant when my wife first suggested we take our son to a pub for lunch. But as long as the place has a seating area it actually works out quite well. A lot of these places have high chairs, which is helpful. The wait staff there also doesn't see too many kids or babies come in, so they tend to dote over your baby. Also, keep in mind that someone who works at a pub has seen his or her fair share of adults acting up. Your nine-month-old's behavior will seem like child's play to them. Pubs can also be relied on to have the staple finger foods. But it's probably worth keeping in mind that as it gets later in the evening the atmosphere at pubs becomes less appealing to a family with a young child.