It was my first day back at work following maternity leave. In an effort to be understanding, my boss invited me to bring my baby along to a breakfast meeting at a restaurant. The meeting was an instant disaster. Within ten minutes, Alyssa arched her back in protest of the restaurant highchair. Seconds later, she started crying. I picked her up. Standing to hold and bounce my baby, I craned my neck to listen to my boss's words. The only thought that registered in my head was how stressful this breakfast was. Moments later, Alyssa calmed enough for me to hold her on my lap. Then she upended a plastic container of syrup, which spread across the table in a sticky goo that reached at least one colleague's note pad. I looked up to see my office rival laughing at me behind her hand. I wanted to go home and never see the inside of that restaurant again.
Cheryl Wright, associate professor and director of the Child and Family Development Center in the department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, tells me I'm not alone. She says that while dining out can definitely be a relaxing pleasure for adults and older children, many of us parents place ourselves in stressful situations where we hope our baby or toddler "will make it through the meal." Heidi Baker, assistant director the Child and Family Development Center at the University of Utah agrees.
"When we take children out to eat, we often have unrealistic expectations. We place them in an adult environment and expect them to behave like an adult."
Wright explains that such expectations are not realistic considering the developmental level of the child.
"It is not the child's fault. Many restaurants are not geared to entertain very young children. The whole setting is not set up to be child proofed and there are many ways children can get in trouble in a restaurant," she says.
She explains that both the food itself, the surrounding restaurant atmosphere and the often lengthy socializing aren't as important to a child as they are to adult.
"Choose fast food restaurants or other restaurants designed for young children, order take-out food or get a baby sitter," she says. "Taking a baby or toddler to a typically adult restaurant is simply unrealistic."
Marilyn Macumber, early childhood program director for The Children's Center agrees that it is hard for children under three to sit and wait very long, because they feel a need to move around. She agrees with Wright's suggestions and recommends offering a continuum of restaurant environments that begins with fast food and progresses to a casual family restaurant without a play place.
"More upscale restaurants often require more waiting," she states. "Parents can start when the child is little with a fast food restaurant, then move to more complex settings after the child is successful in enjoying a fast food meal. In the beginning, consider sticking with two or three family-oriented restaurants that the child is familiar with."
Wright suggests calling ahead to see if the restaurant has a children's menu, and also to get a sense of whether a particular restaurant welcomes children, so that people won't be resentful of the fact that you have children with you. Are high chairs, booster seats, crayons and crackers available? You might also consider asking how long it typically takes to get served once an order is taken. Although some three year olds are still too young, Wright says preschoolers, can learn to wait a short time for their meal to arrive.
"Always bring snacks or ask the waiter for crackers," says Wright.
You may even want to consider having a "rehearsal dinner" at home, in which you play the waiter or waitress so that children can practice ordering and using their "restaurant voices."
"Preparing the child in advance serves as a transition so he will be comfortable in knowing what to expect, and what is coming next," says Baker. You may also want to help the child's meal go smoothly by bringing along a bib, training cup, or child-size silverware.
If you arrive at the restaurant earlier than the majority of other diners, the wait is likely to be shorter and there is less chance of offending someone with a low kid-tolerance level. If you choose to eat at least half an hour before your child's regular meal time, he will be less restless and hunger won't add to his impatience level.
"Children will be less irritable if they aren't pushed to the limit of their hunger," says Baker.
Baker recommends choosing a booth, rather than a table, so that the child will have more room to move around without actually leaving his seat. Because booths are often situated along the wall, rather than in the center of the room, they are out of the waiter's way and the child has fewer distractions that might lead to fidgeting and misbehavior. Choosing to dine at a restaurant's outdoor patio can relieve a parent's stress, because "the parent doesn't feel quite as compelled to have the child behave in a certain way," says Baker.
An aspect of dining out that adults typically enjoy is socializing and relaxing. Children become bored quickly without anything to attract their interest.
"Children do not wait well. They need to be engaged in drawing with crayons, markers or other things that might entertain them while they are waiting," says Wright.
As children get older and have more self-control so that you can trust them to sit through a meal without "losing it," dining out becomes a very important social experience. A restaurant is a place to rehearse making choices, utilizing manners and interacting with others.
In her book, "Remedies For The I Don't Cook Syndrome," Salt Lake author Janet Peterson states that eating dinner together as a family provides more than good nutrition; it enables family members to share their days with each other, to relax, laugh, discuss issues, socialize and strengthen familiar relationships. Peterson says it's true that the table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety and satisfaction.
If there is a number one rule for dining out at any restaurant with kids, it's to enjoy yourself. Have fun. Remember that meals lead to memories.