We were eating at a sushi restaurant and my then 3-year-old daughter started screaming uncontrollably; we later found out she thought the painted shark on the wall was real. Meanwhile, her young brother, under the table, threatened to pull off the tablecloth and, with it, all the table’s contents. After that, I think it was several years before we graced the doors of a restaurant with our children in tow.
I have to say, it was somewhat of a relief. I didn’t miss the hassle of packing a “baby bag” just for a simple meal out; the wait for food, which always seemed excruciatingly long with kids who want to eat NOW; the mess they left behind, leaving me feel like a terrible mother. None of it seemed worth it. But today, I think I may be in the minority.
Typically when I eat out—granted, it’s usually somewhere fairly casual—the place is crawling with kids. Statistics support my observations: Since 2015, Americans have spent more money dining out than at grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Herein, we examine why dining out is trumping eating in; what it means for the local dining scene; and how to indulge in this popular trend without driving yourself, or other diners, crazy.
Baltimore mom and food writer Kit Waskom Pollard shares her thoughts on the growing dining-out-with-kids trend. “I think that, to some extent, it’s part of a larger trend. Over the past 10 or 20 years, it’s become socially acceptable to take kids many different places where they used to be less welcome. I think that has been influenced by people having children later, after they’ve already established some adult habits. They’re used to going out to dinner and don’t want to give it up just because they have a child,” she says. Pollard also suggests that waiting later to have kids means that couples have more disposable income, which enables them to dine out more, a theory shared by economists.
Mary Lou Baker, a longtime area restaurant reviewer who took her own children out to dinner when they were youngsters and now indulges her granddaughters similarly, weighs in. She notices an increasing number of parents are taking their children to “eat out” rather than “dine out,” perhaps as a way to get a break from kitchen duties as opposed to a means of exposing them to life’s finer things. Her own children, recalls Baker, learned early on how to act in a restaurant, as she would bring them along on her restaurant review assignments.
Baker recalls an anecdote from one of those dinners many years ago. “We had gone to a wonderful restaurant, a Sunday dinner. My son ordered prime rib, then adjourned under the table where he and his sister were playing. The waiter came back and asked how the young man would like his prime rib. From under the table came a little voice that responded: ‘I like it cooked.’”
Today, some forward-thinking restaurants provide establishments where parents can get a satisfying meal and some breathing room, while their children play safely nearby. One such local restaurant is the Silver Queen Café, in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood Hamilton.
“We have a nice spot for the kids. It’s a little nook to the left when you come in. We had some low benches put in where they can sit. There are books, a toy wooden kitchen, some blocks. They seem to really enjoy it,” says Nicole Evanshaw, who owns the restaurant with her husband and chef, Jason Banaloski.
SIDE BAR: Common Sense Strategies for Dining Out with Kids
Wherever you stand on the issue of dining out with young children, it appears the trend is here to stay. That said, you may want to consider these common sense dining-out strategies from mom and food writer Kit Waskom Pollard, who’s made the practice work for her family.
Start small. Your kid’s first trip to a restaurant shouldn’t be a multi-course, white tablecloth dinner. It should be short, casual and flexible–the kind of place where you can make a quick getaway if you need to.
Think about timing. If your kids are young, don’t take them to restaurants when they’re tired. That is a recipe for disaster.
Be consistent. When my son was in preschool, he and I used to go to Chick-fil-A for lunch at least once a week. Even there, while we were eating, I made him sit politely, with his napkin on his lap. Once he finished eating, he was allowed to go play in the playground, but while he ate, he had to practice his manners.
Start at home. We eat dinner as a family, at our table, most nights of the week. Restaurants aren’t the place for kids to learn restaurant manners. At home, you can give kids instruction and let them practice their manners without embarrassing them (or you).
Consider school. When my son was five or six, he took a class at the International School of Protocol in Hunt Valley. It was fun for him and he learned all kinds of things about how table manners came about.
Know your kid. Some kids have more energy than others. Some are just louder, or wilder, than others. Don’t force those kids to go to a restaurant they’re not ready for. It’ll be bad for everyone.