Some tips for eating out with young ones

Photograph: Kitch Bain/SHUTTERSTOCK

I will always remember the evening a friend invited my husband and me to the opening night of his restaurant. My son was only 5 months old. He sat stationary on our laps, and the only challenge we foresaw was keeping the silverware and tablecloth out of his mouth.

Shortly before the food came out, I saw the telling signs of concentration on my son’s face, and I soon felt something warm and wet on my lap. Assuming there wasn’t space to change him in the bathroom, we bundled up and headed for the door, thinking the car was the best bet. As we passed by the kitchen, my friend waved me down, and I explained why I was dashing out the door. “Haven’t you seen the bathrooms?” he asked. “We have these beautiful counters that are wide and spacious; you can change him there.” Soon I was headed down a narrow winding staircase with my son in my arms. Once inside the bathroom, I saw that the impressive tile counter next to the sink was just a fraction of the size I had hoped for.

If you’ve ever had to strip down and change a wiggling, messy baby in a tight space, you can appreciate my predicament. Ask any parent, and they’ll recall a memorable and challenging moment in a restaurant with their children. Needless to say, these inconvenient moments are when I have learned to be the most creative.

Our son is now a toddler, and while I love cooking nourishing meals for my family, I would be lying if I denied that, at least one night a week, I have little energy to prepare another meal. On those nights I want to be served and waited on and not have to worry about doing the dishes and sweeping the kitchen. Date nights are few and far between, so my husband and I often pack up the sippy cup, diapers and toys and sort through our options for a place to eat a good, seasonal meal with our son in tow.

My husband and I
have learned some
tricks to avoid the
slippery slope that
leads to a disaster.

I have worked many jobs in the food service world, but one doesn’t need these experiences to know that many food establishments are not inviting or appropriate places for kids to be kids: wild, free and playful. Those that do exist for this purpose are often chain restaurants serving food I would not care to eat or feed my son. Rest assured, restaurateurs and romantic diners, I am not advocating that all places become kid-friendly. But for parents dining out with kids, there is much to be desired. I ask myself, as a mother who values real food and an occasional meal out with my young family, what can be done to make this an enjoyable experience for all?

My husband and I have learned some tricks to avoid the slippery slope that leads to a disaster. These strategies include taking just a brief glance at the menu, ordering quickly, and requesting that appetizers and main courses be sent out at the same time. We time our distractions: coloring on the place mat, a walk outside, or a special surprise brought from home that we reveal just as things become desperate. We are ready to play our cards at any moment.

When we do go out to eat we opt to dine early, in the hopes that we won’t bother other diners and that the service will be quick, so as to maintain peace and keep our son’s bedtime schedule. Waitstaff who show compassion for their young customer’s short attention span help to ensure that the evening is smooth sailing by bringing out bread or asking the kitchen to “fire” the food as soon as we order.

We often choose a restaurant that has a casual atmosphere and volume, so that if our son has an emphatic moment, it won’t be too disruptive. Optional outdoor seating in warm weather is always a plus for us, as are specific child-friendly spaces. In our travels, we have been introduced to several restaurants that go above and beyond with designated spaces, often a corner stocked with toys and a couch or rug where kids can safely wander and be out of the way.

Since our son was a baby, we’ve always fed him whatever we are eating for dinner. Luckily, he’s adventurous, and though he’ll often eat what’s on our plates, he now needs his own plate to fill his belly. Having a children’s menu with a few healthy alternatives to the standard fried foods is, in my eyes, a big bonus.

Finally, if I had to choose only one golden offering that a restaurant can make to parents, it would be to have changings table in the bathrooms, and to keep in mind, men are fathers and change diapers too. Navigating restaurants with my son has given me a new appreciation for establishments that make an extra effort to ensure eating out with children is a little easier for mothers and fathers. Don’t get me wrong, I like being challenged, and definitely need more creativity in my life, but when we go out to eat, I want my cake, quickly please, and to eat it too.


A few Edible Jersey favorite restaurants that are well-suited for young diners.

Lovin’ Oven
Photograph: Glenn Race

258 Nassau Street, Princeton

Some of the freshest fish you’ll find, and kids will love drawing on the paper tablecloths and eating outside.

188 Spring Street, Newton

Offers an approachable family-friendly menu, featuring local ingredients and even homemade, organic chicken fingers. The big selling point is the raw cookie they bring to kids to be decorated before the first course is served. The cookie is baked and brought back for desert.

62 Trenton Avenue, Frenchtown

The brunch menu is very kid-friendly, and you’ll find a number of good distractions nearby while you wait for your table, including walking along the canal and visiting Two Buttons next door, which offers a bag of freshly popped popcorn for visitors.

205 Beach Avenue, Cape May

This family-friendly restaurant has mostly outdoor seating, with tables in the sand and a play area for kids.

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