In my gut, I knew that it was too late to take our baby out for dinner. He was acting a little tired and it was nearly 7 p.m. Nonetheless, my husband and I wanted a night out – and we figured we could handle anything that came our way.
Fast-forward 20 minutes, as we left the restaurant juggling our crying baby and the take-out containers into which we had hurriedly thrown our dinners. I should have listened to my instincts and stayed home!
But staying at home for every meal is not much fun. So how do you successfully dine out with a little one? Remembering the three "rights" below will make the experience more pleasant for everyone.
The ‘right’ time
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Never take a tired baby or toddler out for a meal later than you would expect them to eat at home (as my own experience proves).
"I consider my kids’ naptimes and bedtimes, and try to squeeze in a visit to a restaurant when there will be the least amount of crankiness," says Kathy Brady, a mother of four from Ann Arbor.
Think about how long it takes to drive to the restaurant and what sort of wait for a table you may have to endure. Early evenings usually work best for dinner, but not always. One of my favorite spots is incredibly busy during happy hour on Fridays. Rather than wait for hordes of office workers to vacate the tables, I know to visit that particular restaurant on Saturday instead.
The ‘right’ place
Restaurants targeted at families are your best bet. These establishments have what you need for a successful night out: a kids’ menu, milk, high chairs, placemats and crayons. Other families frequent these restaurants as well, so you will be in good company.
Think about the noise level and busyness of the restaurant. My kids have always loved the loud restaurants where every kid gets a balloon and model airplanes dangle from the ceiling.
Amy Scott, a mother of two from Fenton, concurs. "Any place that had a ceiling fan worked for my son when he was a baby," she says. However, it’s also trial and error: Some babies and toddlers are over stimulated by such surroundings and may have a meltdown.
The ‘right’ food
The youngest infants do not care what is on the kids’ menu as long as they have a bottle, breast or jar of baby food nearby. Once they start solids, however, babies may enjoy trying what you ordered. Plate sharing with infants is generally accepted in family restaurants, although it never hurts to check beforehand.
When the time comes to order your toddler his or her own meal, use common sense. Kids’ meals offer smaller portions at a smaller price. Think about safety, too. Dishes such as macaroni and cheese can be served piping hot and burn your little one’s mouth. Hot dogs are popular, but most restaurants serve them whole, so it is still up to you to cut it into small pieces to prevent choking.
Concerned about food allergies? Check the menu closely for ingredients or consult your server. It doesn’t hurt to be health conscious, either. "We appreciate restaurants that offer healthy choices for kids’ meals," says Brady.
Dining out as a family can be fun. As Scott says, "I enjoy the family time and the ability for us to concentrate on each other rather than the cooking and cleaning up."
If you remember your "rights" – the right time, the right place and the right food – then your chances of successfully eating out with your baby or toddler will rise considerably.