All parents have those moments when they believe they will never, ever, eat anywhere finer than McDonald's until their children head off to college. For me, that time came when my daughter was a very unruly, ketchup-splattered 18-month-old.
Yet, less than two years later, I found myself working as a restaurant reviewer. Dining out several times a week suddenly was the norm.
First thing I did? Draw up a roster of baby sitters. Second thing? Figure out what to do if Caroline came along. Sometimes I wanted her there -- she was my test child for family restaurants. Other times, when the baby sitters fell through or a last-minute meal out was required, I learned to cope.
Here are seven survival tips, learned the hard way, on how to take your child out for a meal and survive.
1. Do lunch, not dinner. Taking our daughter out to eat on a Saturday afternoon after soccer practice or gymnastics class was a ritual. Attitudes were more relaxed on both sides of the table. Prices were also lower at lunch, so it wasn't as big a loss if Caroline didn't want to eat all of her meal.
2. Patronize the same restaurants consistently. If you and your family are recognized as regulars, you'll be welcomed more warmly and have more slack cut if your kid gets frisky. Conversely, your child will know the drill and act accordingly. The staff of our nearby Thai restaurant used to scoop up our daughter and whisk her back into the kitchen to be cooed over by the cook. That gave us precious seconds to peruse the menu.
3. Prepping for cleanup is vital. Arrive armed with moist wipes, plastic place mats and paper napkins. Pick up any food that falls on the table and the floor. Tip liberally to ensure a cheery greeting when you return.
4. Choose the restaurant wisely. A cozy, family-friendly neighborhood restaurant that has been around forever is always a better pick than some new hot spot. Some restaurants are meant for adults only. There's a reason for this: The entire dining room is filled with parents trying to take a break from kids -- theirs and, most especially, yours.
5. Consider the menu. Kids have more sensitive palates; spicy or hot food may be a turnoff. Bones and skin and unwieldy chunks can also pose a challenge to little, clumsy fingers. Look over the menu in advance, if you can.
6. Don't freak out if your child wants to try "strange" food. Caroline once ordered squab (aka pigeon); I stayed cool, even when the drumstick arrived with claw attached. A little lettuce provided perfect camouflage.
7. Divert hungry kids with a good food story. Come with tales that explain how a dish was created or why it looks or tastes the way it does or how it got its name. This works particularly well with ethnic fare. Chinese stir-fries were developed because fuel was scarce and cooking had to be quick. Pizza margherita is named for an old queen of Italy. Just exercise some judgment: A ribs joint isn't the place to talk about how a slaughterhouse operates.