Taking Out Your Tiny Diner

by Leslie Klipsch

My husband and I are admitted "foodies" and enjoy a habit that takes us from our home (and our son's high chair) at least three times a week. Navigating the restaurant scene used to be easy, we'd pick a place and go.

However, now that we are a party of three, things have become a bit more challenging. Oliver no longer sleeps quietly in his car seat while we dine, nor is he satisfied with a pacifier and stuffed toy while we sip coffee. But instead of giving up the pleasure of dining out, we've learned to include our son in the fun.

Arrive Early

Much to the relief of other patrons and restaurant staff, babies and toddlers are usually finishing their bed time stories by the time people gathered for a quiet meal are opening their menus. When my husband and I dine out with our two-year-old, we try to be in and out of the establishment by seven o'clock.

Your chances of encountering a busy restaurant full of serious diners or a cranky baby are significantly less at this hour. Go early and enjoy an atmosphere void of long waits and less-than-friendly stares.

Bring a Bag of Fun

Packing distractions is especially important at a restaurant where your baby or toddler will be required to remain stationary for a good portion of time. What you stock your bag with will change according to your child's development, but there should never be a shortage of entertainment.

A mobile attached to the infant carrier, a toy that suctions to the tabletop, crayons, even play dough have kept our son happy through many meals. Some parents keep an arsenal of "special" toys that only appear at restaurants. This makes eating out a real treat!

Befriend your Barista

Whether you are at a coffee shop, a fast food joint, or a sit-down restaurant, your server will impact your experience. Make friends.

Not only will you model manners to your child, but such polite behavior may also encourage simple favors, such as the arrival of your petite patron's entrée before the rest. Servers and busboys who enjoy kids may stop by to canoodle while you take a few uninterrupted bites.

Maintain friendly relations by surveying the area before you leave and eliminating any excessive mess. This way, the staff will smile genuinely the next time you and your small party walks through the door.

Encourage an Exotic Eater

Why not start shaping the palate early? A restaurant is a great place for a young child to develop new tastes. Stray from the standard kid's menu, which is typically bland and fried, and expose young taste buds to more unusual flavors. A sample of sesame chicken, a mashed up bite of garlic potatoes, or a taste of ratatouille may delight tiny taste buds.

Conquering the Kids Menu
You know the choices by heart -- grilled cheese, hot dog, chicken strips. Most restaurants don't stray too far from the kid classics, even though many of these options have little to no nutritional value. However, there are alternatives -- you can create a healthier and more adventurous option for your kids while dining out.

Select Sides
A side of sweet potatoes is much healthier than a pile of fries. Look for side dishes on the standard menu and order them up as a meal for the kids. Most menus offer some sort of steamed vegetable, potato, or pasta. An added benefit of a side dish is that they usually come in a perfect portion for your toddler.

Bring on the Bananas
If you see banana crème pie on the dessert list, the kitchen has bananas. The same is true of most fruits. Even if a fruit bowl is not listed on the menu, the chef more than likely has a kitchen stocked with seasonal goods. Ask your server nicely and most will appear with a pleasingly sweet fruit treat.

Pick from Your Plate
A toddler-size portion of meat is actually only one ounce. You or someone from your party can probably spare this from a sirloin or grilled chicken sandwich. Ask for a small, separate plate and portion the protein for your tiny diner.

Anticipate An Exit

Before you had children you may have been the type to linger over dessert and coffee. But unless it's date night or you have a sleeping newborn, you probably do not enjoy that luxury anymore. Once you sense a meltdown, you may want to consider making an exit.

Some might be curbed by a walking tour of the restaurant or new trick from your bag, but others require a quick get away. Don't let this discourage you. Just wink an apology at your neighbor, request your food to go, leave a tip for the trouble, and hit the road happy. There's always tomorrow night...or take out!

Leslie Klipsch is a mother, teacher, and writer living with her husband and two-year-old son in Chicago.

Copyright © Leslie Klipsch. Publishing rights retained by Pregnancy.org, LLC.