I swore I’d never turn into a hobbit when I had a baby, reassuring myself that we’d still go out to dinner. I was terrified of living – and eating – vicariously through friends. Once pregnant I tuned out other parents who said they couldn’t remember the last movie they saw in the theatre and hadn’t heard of any of the new restaurants we’d mention. They’d tell us to live it up while we could, because once the baby came, we’d lose our freedom. On some level I knew deep down, it just didn’t have to be this way.
Since part of my job used to be reviewing restaurants and I’d put my time in as a server, I wanted our daughter to grow up with a variety of foods and a respect for the restaurant business. I remember a couple of encouraging chefs (ones with kids) saying that new parents should keep frequenting their favorite neighborhood restaurants, just go earlier and eat quicker – i.e., order wines by the glass, not the bottle, and skip the cheese course.
Determined, we took our Stella out when she was four days old, staring with a trip to Starbucks. Since that went so well we spent the following months introducing her to all sorts of places and ethnic foods . . . even if she merely watched from her little bucket seat. We did the taquerias where lively Mexican music made a nice backdrop to the meltdowns – tip: never, ever leave the pacifier at home. We hit the Irish pubs, sipping Guinness while the proprietor congratulated us for starting her early. And we adored Italian, given they’re the same bunch of lovely people who poured me wine without asking when I was pregnant, God love them.
Around the three-month mark I met a friend at a local coffee shop, the one that prides itself on being the anti-Starbucks, selling whole-grain goodies and swirling foam designs into their lattes. It was packed with the usuals – designers, hipsters, students, writers – all eyeing me as I settled in with my small cappuccino and rather less small stroller, which required major maneuvering to squeeze it out of the walkway.
Stella started moaning and tossing toys aside anxiously, so I began to mix up a bottle, fumbling with the formula. My friend nervously offered to hold the baby now turning red in the face with impatient hunger cries. Someone bumped into the stroller while I tore apart my diaper bag for a burp cloth and the water and coffee spilled with a mess of napkins onto the floor. Every face turned toward me with irritated and annoyed smirks. I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – “You’re obviously in the wrong place, pleeaase leave!”
To give a nod to the pros who warned us it’d be tough, it got worse when we had to swap the infant carrier for a high chair. Suddenly we required special furniture and, more importantly, an extra-tolerant environment. When blood sugar runs low in our household we call it “Feed the beast!” and our baby in her pre-Cheerio state is no exception.
When the beast came out during a recent road trip, we ducked into a McDonald’s for the first time since getting scared straight by Fast Food Nation. It was instant gratification without the agony of waiting. I indulged in chicken nuggets and fries. So did Stella. She squealed with delight, which brought smiles, not stares, to the faces around us. I pushed aside her organic applesauce and semi-soft cheese and let her get all greasy. Memories of sitting there with my mom and my grandma came flooding back and I felt strangely proud.
For better or for worse, perhaps for pure convenience, McDonald’s will always be a rite of passage. It’s often how kids think of a restaurant – fun, friendly, colorful and not pretentious. It’s so refreshing to hear kids say “chicken nuggets” or “hot dogs” when asked about their favorite foods. With all the pressure to be all-natural all the time, I get nervous a little three-year-old will respond with “edamame” or “tofu pups.” I really worry for the tiny tot who might mechanically utter the word “organic” as if it’s a singular food on its own.
With so much emphasis to go organic early, we’re so afraid of pesticides in the fruit we puree and hormones in the beef we cook that it can be pretty scary to leave home, unless it’s just a quick jaunt to Whole Foods. Unfortunately the same restaurants that support all-natural, sustainable farming don’t really cater to kids. Last weekend I called an old local favorite and while they said they welcomed children, they had to put me on hold to ask if they had high chairs.
It’s nice to have a place where no one flinches when families walk in mid-meltdown. I can’t blame these places for holding up a certain standard. When I’m at a nice restaurant, paying those prices, I expect a certain level of service and presentation. It just doesn’t work with a mac-and-cheese-smeared baby, dropping toys and food on the ground while the server plays defense, moving back wine and water glasses and shuffling hot plates to safety zones. It isn’t fair to other diners and it’s not fair to the restaurateurs whose crisp vision of a dining experience – complete with soft music, white porcelain and sparkling stemware – does not come with baby.
It’s a lot like the local bookshops and boutiques we try so hard to support, only to find our stroller doesn’t quite fit down the aisle, our item isn’t in stock and our crying baby has totally interrupted their vibe. It puts us parents who previously avoided the big box and fast food world in quite a predicament. Do we choose independent or convenient? Healthy or friendly? We don’t have the time we once did to browse shops, read menus and hop all over town to find what we want. McDonald’s – much like those evil big box retailers – gets this. They always have.
The chain of all restaurant chains is still super baby-friendly with its heaps of highchairs and happy meals. True to its genre, it is quick, which we frantic parents appreciate, as well as clean and affordable. And despite what snobs (and maybe Morgan Spurlock) say, the food will not kill you. We should give them some credit for stepping into the twenty-first century with healthier options like all-white meat chicken, salads and apple slices. Now they’re even making lattes. It almost makes me want to carry one into my cranky coffee shop, stroller first, and say, “Remember me? I was in here yesterday and you wouldn’t wait on me? Big mistake. Big! Huge!”
Maybe it’s time for the indies to take a cue from the chains and make some room for the stroller set. Or at least not be so judgmental when it comes to fast food. It’s nice to have a place where no one flinches when families walk in mid-meltdown and where grandparents giggle watching babies taste French fries for the first time. Personally, I find it comforting that my post-preschool hangout is here for my daughter’s generation and feel like giving Mickey D’s a little pat on the back for modernizing themselves. So until there’s a place that supports sustainable farming with organic food that’s open twenty-four hours a day (or at least for lunch!), I certainly won’t be boycotting the Golden Arches.