Our restaurant policy with young children is easy: Avoid when possible.
Little kids don’t require it, my husband and I sure don’t enjoy it, and restaurant patrons and staff could certainly live without having my youngest boy there, throwing his green beans on the floor.
But don’t tell that to my friends, most of whom have older children. “Just bring him!” they cajole. “It’ll be fine!” Yeah, right. Fine for them as they sit back and eat their own food and mind their own manners. Not so fine for me, who has to share her food, entertain with creamer cup pyramids, and pick sippy cups up off the floor before I have to let him out of his seat and explore : with me tagging along behind, of course.
It’s possible there are young children who are gracious little humans in restaurants. These improbable creatures sit quietly in their booster seats or high chairs, calmly read a book as they wait for their food, and eat politely with their families. I do not know these children and cannot verify their existence. However, based on the fact that some people actually choose to go out to eat with their preschoolers, anecdotal evidence must be out there.
But even if kids behave somewhat decently, I still think it’s a lose-lose situation. For starters, if your preschooler is anything like every other preschooler I’ve encountered, he or she isn’t going to eat much healthy food in a restaurant. Crackers, French fries, and maybe a little cheese or fruit is the best you can hope for. He or she would get a much better meal at home, eating what he or she is used to.
And you, as the Child Wrangler, aren’t going to sit and savor your meal. Dream on. You’ll be trying to get morsels of food into your wee one’s mouth while juggling sugar packets and singing a medley of Barney songs. You won’t have time to appreciate those succulent fish tacos with fresh mango salsa and sweet potato fries. You’ll be wolfing them down in between acts of the Mama and Daddy Variety Show, while praying you won’t have to deal with a dirty diaper or toppled dish of cottage cheese.
And what about the other people involved? Other restaurant patrons might think your child is the most precious little nubbin they’ve ever seen, but they won’t adore your little sprite enough to babysit him or her while you eat your dinner or pay your bill or have a conversation with your spouse. (Not that you’d let a stranger watch your child, anyway.) Nor will they find it cute when your little precious has a meltdown. You’ll get that look – the please-take-your-kid-outside look.
Why would you put yourself through this? I get that it’s good to expose kids to new situations and new tastes. I really do. It would be terrific to give your four- or five-year-old an appreciation for pad thai and chicken tikka masala. We all want our kids to enjoy the wide variety of food flavors, textures, and presentations that the world has to offer. But I think your odds of success are astronomically better if you wait until your child is at least six years old. By the time a child’s ready for big-kid school, that child ought to be ready for grownup restaurants.
Hopefully, by the time your child is in school, you will have introduced a variety of interesting foods at home and taught manners thoroughly enough that your family can have a great experience at a formal restaurant. But until then, for all of our sakes, please wait. Your five-year-old isn’t going to appreciate artistically prepared gourmet food, and he might be vocal about it. I don’t want to overhear the kid at the next table whining about the gross beets and slimy mushrooms on his plate. I don’t want to hear any sniffly sighs or theatrical moans and I sure don’t want to hear his irritated parent fussing at him to behave. He just isn’t mature enough to be there.
And I do say this with a shred of authority: My teenage sons have had, throughout their grade-school years, very experimental palates. They will try anything and they love many exotic foods. My oldest wanted sushi for his eighth birthday party, and he still chooses it as his favorite food. My middle son craves Greek food, seafood, and Mexican food. Even if they aren’t familiar with a dish, they will try it, because they have seen how much pleasure their dad and I get from eating and discussing fabulous food. They want to be in on the game and they have been – ever since they were old enough to play it. We didn’t take them out to nice restaurants until they were ready to sit politely and eat their meals. We’ve received countless words of praise from wait staff for their manners; they say “please” and “thank you,” look the waitperson in the eye, and compliment the food. But before the Age of Reason, we got babysitters if we wanted to have any sort of pleasurable meal. “Table manners should be commensurate with age,” wrote Meredith Carroll in Do Table Manners Matter with Kids?
There were exceptions, of course, like road trips and special meals after family events when it was necessary to have them along. And the stress caused from these few occasions led to our avoidance policy (see above). If we can’t get a sitter, we don’t go. Or one parent will go to the restaurant, and the other will stay at home with the preschooler. It took only a few times of getting burned (i.e., a noisy, embarrassing scene and/or an expensive, wasted meal) to teach us that Never Again was the best plan.
If we absolutely must feed young kids away from home, we’ll pack our own sandwiches, cheese, and fruit or swing into a grocery store for yogurt and granola bars. Feeding a little kid in the car is much easier than in a restaurant, plus you get to your destination sooner. As a last resort, we’ll aim for the healthiest fast-food establishment in sight. A place unlikely to be used for business meetings and romantic dates, with stuck-in-place furniture, plenty of disposable napkins, and a handy mop bucket.
I know I seem extreme, but there’s no reason to rush your kids into restaurants. There’s not some magical Sushi Window that’s going to close if you wait. Get a babysitter, enjoy some grownup time, and feed your preschooler at home with familiar foods. Your little bun will grow up fast, believe me, and soon he or she will be ready for a foray into the grownup dining world. But before the age of six or so, it’s best to let him or her eat at the kitchen table.