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How to Dine at a Restaurant With Kids
A veteran food writer and mom of three gives tips on how to navigate a restaurant with littles
Recently, a restaurant in New Jersey decided to ban children from its dining room, effective March 8. Nettie’s House of Spaghetti in Tinton Falls, New Jersey posted the following on social media:
“Between noise levels, lack of space for high chairs, cleaning up crazy messes, and the liability of kids running around the restaurant, we have decided that it’s time to take control of the situation.”
Broken Palate founder and restaurateur, John McDonald, take a different approach. His restaurants offer a VIP amuse bouche for kids so they’re not hangry, and servers ask if kiddos have any special needs upfront.
Most restaurants (and we’re not talking about fast-food chains and Chuck E. Cheese) fall between the two extremes: While a total child ban is rare, it’s also safe to say that many dining establishments don’t cater to children.
Sara Liss has built her career on writing about food. She is the author of Miami Cooks: Recipes from the City's Favorite Restaurants, and a freelance lifestyle and food journalist.
And she frequently dines with her three children ages 8 to 13.
"I’ve been bringing my kids to restaurants since they were three weeks old. From the beginning, my husband and I agreed that we’re not going to leave the kids at home when we go out,” she says.
Liss says that acclimating her kids to restaurants at an early age, might just be the key. “I do think the way to get kids used to nice restaurants is to bring them along so they can take certain cues on how to use their tone of voice and to understand the etiquette. You can’t just take them to Chipotle and Chuck E. Cheese and then expect them to know how to behave at a steakhouse.”
That said, Liss adds, there’s nothing more charming than seeing a child dressed up in a restaurant. “I think it’s a rite of passage — to bring a child to restaurants for occasions. It makes memories.”
Liss is right. My fondest memories were of Sunday dinners growing up. My parents and grandparents would go out to the same restaurant every week. Our waiter, Jimmy, resplendent in a golden dinner jacket, would ask me, “The usual Miss Laine — a macaroni and cheese and an orange soda?”
So how can you ensure that dinner equates to lovely moments and not tantrums?
Preparation is key, according to Liss.
“First, I make sure that they’re not completely, voraciously hungry,” says Liss, who adds that even before she and her husband peruse the menu, she puts in a snack or appetizer order for the kids. “Once that’s done, the grownups can get down to what we want to have for dinner.”
When dining with smaller kids, Liss suggest packing a restaurant-friendly activity — preferably one that’s not electronic. “When my kids were smaller, I had a little stash of toys, like tiny Lego sets or little surprises of things they didn’t get to play with normally.”
Liss suggests doing a little homework to find places that are accommodating to families. “We would go to Italian restaurants that would give the kids pizza dough to play with. Hotel restaurants also seem to get it.” She’s also found some places that are surprisingly child-friendly — so ask around. “There’s a restaurant, Sushi Garage in Miami Beach, that has the most beautiful high chairs I’ve ever seen. They’ve gone out of their way to invest in a child-friendly element.”
Some good alternatives for rambunctious kids are food halls. “They have a great casual atmosphere, so your kids can be a little loud and messy,” says Liss.
It’s also about knowing your child’s limitations and respecting others. “For each of our kids, there was a window when they were toddlers when we decided they weren’t good at being in restaurants,” she confides.
In the end, a successful dinner out is all about mutual respect and some patience.
And that, says Liss, goes for other diners who might see a family walk into a restaurant and automatically think the worst. “How many times have you witnessed an adult having a meltdown? Kids are just little people.”