Saturday, July 16, 2022

Dining out (with kids)

I paced outside the restaurant in the warm summertime air, gently coaxing my newborn baby to sleep. Just eight or so weeks after the birth of my first child, I was eager to get out and enjoy some sushi with my husband while basking in the beauty of a restaurant. With my now-sleeping baby on my chest, we walked inside and were soon seated at a booth. Surrounded by the sparkling lights of the restaurant, we ordered. Soon, our waiter brought out an appetizer, and as our eyes widened at the sight of the grilled yellowtail collar...the baby woke up. As we enjoyed our delicious food, I tried to quiet the baby. I stood, nestling him close to my chest in the carrier, and gently bounced and rocked. 

The table next to ours was packed with adults--some of whom appeared to be related--who were talking, laughing, and enjoying themselves. I caught the eye of one woman at this table and apologized for my noisy newborn. She looked me straight in the eye and told me not to worry that my baby was making noise (like any normal baby would). "He's family," she declared. 

He's family--and in the eyes and reassurances of this woman, that was enough to prove that our baby had a place at the restaurant table. 

This brief encounter has stuck with me all these years later. This woman's openness to--and acceptance of--our young child in a public space was comforting to a new parent, and it fills me with hope as we seek to create a culture in which all human life is respected. 

Even if parents have a great deal of support and self-confidence, they can still feel self-conscious about taking their young children to public places that aren't specifically geared towards kids. This can cause some people to dramatically shift their lives to the extent that they stay away from many establishments: restaurants, churches, and museums, to name a few. They'll state that "when he's older, we can go out to eat again" or something of that variation. 

As a young parent of a cluster of small children (a couple of them being rowdy boys), I can understand a little bit of that sentiment. I look at families we know who have only older children and smile as I see the way they are able to enjoy peaceful outings or even simply play games together in the time they usually are "supposed" to take. However, I do think it can be problematic when we live under the assumption that all life needs to be "put on hold" when there's a baby in the house. 

Perhaps you only plan to have one child, so "putting life on hold" would simply mean waiting a few years before embarking into the public sphere once again. However, what if you are surprised with two unplanned lines on a stick one day? Suddenly, you may experience a sense of isolation and bewilderment as you realize that your interactions with wider society will be put "on hold" for longer than you expected. What if you hope, plan, and dream of having many children? Even if you rejoice each time that test is positive, those feelings of sadness or alienation at being cut off from "normal life" can still come. 

I wonder what would happen--in our culture, in our homes, and in our hearts--if we simply made children part of "normal life." 

What if we brought young children to our place of worship--even with all of their squirms and squeals--and no one complained? 

What if we walked into museums with little ones and employees didn't follow us around as they tried to make sure that the children didn't step one inch closer to that display of World War II memorabilia? 

What if we took our kids with us to restaurants? 

I once heard someone pose the question: What age does your child need to be before bringing him or her to a restaurant?

I honestly can't tell you what the responses were; I stopped listening, stunned--because my husband and I have always brought our kids to restaurants. This is partly due to the fact that we don't have any local relatives to watch the kids while my husband and I run off to grab sushi or pho. Yes, we could hire a babysitter, but considering schedules and money, it's often cheaper to take our kids with us than to pay someone to watch them--and instead of needing to coordinate schedules with another person, we can spontaneously decide to eat out. 

Furthermore, I've found that it's also really nice to make these memories as a family and expose our children to a range of cuisines and environments. From the eclectic decor of our favorite burger restaurant to the wrought-iron chairs of a creperie to the soothing aesthetic of a sushi restaurant, our children have been exposed to a variety of settings and foods. 

We don't take our kids to every type of restaurant; the few times my husband and I have enjoyed a more expensive, high-class restaurant, we only have taken a baby (who was
oohed and aaahed over by the restaurants' staff) or gone once the baby was old enough to leave with relatives. But, for a sit-down meal that falls somewhere between fast food or $30/plate, it's fun to bring the kids along! 

I think that it's really neat to see families dining together in restaurants. After an ultrasound for one of my kids, my husband and I decided that we would stop by a Thai place for dinner as a family. When we walked in, we saw a family with five kids talking, laughing, and eating together. It was a beautiful sight! 

Our children are part of our family, and it's wonderful to enjoy meals with them at home and at restaurants (though restaurant dining is more of an infrequent occurrence, since eating out is expensive). Particularly with all of the loneliness and division in our culture, I think it's powerful to witness families dining out, visiting museums, and going through "normal life" in public places--even with babies or young children.

If you've never gone out to restaurants with young kids before, here are some ideas to consider:

--Give them a snack beforehand. Everyone will be much happier if the kids aren't hungry and cranky while waiting for food! 

--Avoid the "kid's menu." I am not impressed by many "kid's menus" out there. They often consist of food that is overpriced, bland, unhealthy, and/or is of much lower quality than the food from the adult menu. We've found that it's often cheaper per child--or the same price--to buy one adult entrĂ©e for our kids to share (plus, whatever they don't eat, we are more than happy to consume!). This is also a nice way to introduce our children to diverse foods. (Our children are currently all 6 and under and have tried octopus, eel, curry, and raw fish.) 

--Skip dessert at the restaurant. Sometimes, desserts are overpriced, but even when they're not, sitting around and waiting for a dessert--with young kids--can be a challenge. We've found that it works much better to stop at another place (a bakery, perhaps?) on the way home for a quick dessert or pick up a carton of ice cream from the store. 

--Patiently practice restaurant behavior and have realistic expecations. It takes time for kids to learn proper behavior, so I try to see each outing as a learning experience that gives us information on how we can have a more peaceful meal the next time. 

And, on this topic, here are a couple of articles that I found interesting:  

"I Bring my 4 Kids to Restaurants, Because Why Wouldn't I?" 

"Eating out with kids: You're doing it wrong"

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