Should you take your baby to the restaurant?

You want to go out to eat, but you also value your sanity and don't want want to face the scorn of other diners. Is it possible to be a new dad & eat at a sit-down restaurant?

One of the first things you worry about when you have a baby is when you'll get to go out again.

Well, probably the first thing you worry about is "What is this and how do I make it stop crying?"

(I've got your back on that one.)

But after that initial wave of insanity, you're likely wondering how long it'll take for you and your wife to, say, eat at a restaurant again.

I've got good news, bad news, and keeping it real news. But first...

The good, the bad, and the realistic news about eating out with your baby. The verdict? You can totally pull it off if you're smart about it. | instafather.com

The good, the bad, and the realistic news about eating out with your baby. The verdict? You can totally pull it off if you're smart about it. | instafather.com

A 'Crazy Idea': Let's go Out to Eat

"I've got a crazy idea," my wife texted me.

This could go about any direction. Drive to Mexico? Join the Rockettes? Taste all the Oreo varieties in one minute just to say we did? 

No, this time, she wanted to take our 3 kids under 3 years old out to eat. Why not, she figured. If it didn't go well, we'd bail.

We hadn't gone out to eat as a family since the twins were born in April, as we've mostly been locked inside because of hospitals or getting used to the new schedule. But it made perfect sense to get out. Our daughters, now almost five months old, were doing well, and our son, who can be a delightful-yet-insane toddler, is usually pretty good if you slap a pizza in front of him, as are we all.

We packed up the family in the van and went to Red Robin, a gourmet burger spot. (Although we're vegan, this place surprisingly has a lot of options.) It wasn't going out to a five-star restaurant, but there was a waitress and a menu involved. That's a win.

We had the girls set up in car seats on other side of the table. We had Elliott (age 2) in his portable plastic seat that has a tray and attaches to the chair. And we girded our collective loins for whatever the sweet Lord above had planned. Would it be salt shaker throwing? Would it be unbridled screams? Would it be the trifecta of crying that the gods themselves used to bring down quivering Roman gladiators of yesteryear, the screaming too powerful for even the mightiest warrior/restaurant patron of a fast casual restaurant chain to overcome?

You know what happened?

NOTHING.

We ordered. We ate our meal. Quinn fussed a little bit, so my wife took her for a brief lap. Elliott  fussed a little bit, so we gave him a video to watch. We ate our entire meal. We paid the check. We left. Like being in the eye of a hurricane, it was calm even if you kept waiting for the destruction to begin.

It was a delightful family meal, one that we didn't have to clean up (bonus!) and got us out of the house into society. 

I'm here to tell you this: If we, with twin baby girls and a 2-year-old boy, can eat out, so can you.

Will it always go smoothly?

HAHAHAHA no. At least once, you'll take your baby out to a restaurant and end up adding a zero to the tip to make up for the hell the baby hath wrought.

Mind you, it's never as bad as you think. It's always, ALWAYS worse in the mind of the parent who is sure everyone hates them when, in reality, sure some people might be annoyed but most people have had babies and know what it's like. Solidarity.

You can make it work. You can take your baby out to eat at a restaurant or, hell, even a sports bar if you want (not one with smoking allowed mind you because ... no.). You can and should feel comfortable taking the baby on your own, or you can go out together with your wife as a way to put on pants and a clean shirt and be an adult again. The point is, don't be scared. You can do this. You just need both realistic expectations and some strategy.

Good news:

It won't be nearly as long as you think until you can give it a try! What you are aiming for here are golden periods for baby appearances. Golden periods are a perfect storm of favorable factors. If one of these factors is missing, you can still go out, but it turns from "Hey isn't this nice? We're out eating a meal again!" to "Should we just tell the waitress to bag it up? People are staring" real fast.

Factors that help:

  • A baby that is old enough to be out in public. Why? Germs, dude. If you have a full-term baby, generally, the advice is up to two months of staying at home before taking the baby out, and even then making sure strangers don't touch him/her. Because they will try. If you have a preemie (like my twins), it can be even longer, because even a cold can turn into a scary situation. Trust me.
  • A baby that isn't mobile. Once your baby can move around on his/her own, they won't be as happy to be stuck in a car seat throughout dinner. This was a huge turning point with our son. Once he started crawling/walking, it was game over for a long stretch until he was capable of sitting still again. 
  • A baby that has learned how to entertain itself. This one isn't as huge, but if they are at the point that they can play with a toy, you've bought yourself some quiet time.

That could mean that a golden period is from 4 months to 10 months, for example. Doesn't mean you can't do it other times - it's just trickier. Take advantage of the good times!

If you read some freaking TheBump.com-ish story titled "How to Survive Eating Out With Your Baby", run away. There's a time to be overdramatic. Eating out is not about survival. Nobody is forcing you to do it! You can leave whenever! It's about taking a calculated risk that you can keep the baby relatively calm and happy long enough for you to eat and enjoy yourself. Nobody is going to die. If someone dies, please call 911. There is food poisoning.

Bad news:

If you have it in your head as a brand new father that your friends are overblowing it and you'll have no problem taking your baby wherever, whenever you want ... you need a reality check. 

Understand what I mean here! I'm as big of an advocate for strapping your kid into a baby carrier and going to Lowe's or Chipotle or whatever you want as anyone. But in those types of places, you can leave easily. Sometimes, I'd walk into Kohl's with my son and walk right out 5 minutes later because he was having a meltdown and did not understand the value of Kohl's Cash stacked on top of 30% off plus clearance prices. And that was OK, because it's an easy escape. I guess those Marc Anthony ties weren't necessary.

But I hear parents sometimes, before they have a baby, make it sound like they'll be able to go out to dinner anytime they want because they'll just bring a bottle for the baby and all will be nice and pleasant. Sometimes, sure! Sometimes, having our son with us when he was a newborn wasn't that difficult because he was no trouble. Other times, you turn into Jason Bourne and plot out all the exits in your mind while figuring out how to strap the baby back into the car seat and be in the car in under a minute.

You can't force it. There are days when your baby is just not gonna have it, and that's OK. It'll be frustrating, but it'll work out. Babies don't care if you want to eat out. They care about feeling safe and secure.

Keeping it Real news:

Some people will not be happy to see you walk up with a stroller.

Have you seen the stories that are almost annual this point about Restaurant X prohibiting parents with babies from eating there? That photo above about no strollers? That's an actual sign in a restaurant.

The topic of what to do about babies in restaurants - like babies on a plane - is really divisive.

Some people and restaurant owners think parents should either stay at home or "keep the baby quiet," perhaps through witchcraft or sorcery.

Those people should go screw themselves with a moldy pacifier.

Do not worry about those people. Those people will find a reason to complain about anything. They are the kind of people who would complain about dogs barking at a dog park. They want control over everything.

It's not realistic to tell parents who are both paying customers and members of society that they have to cater to everyone else all the time. 

No parent wants their baby to cry in a restaurant. No parent wants to cause a scene. But you also have to adjust your expectations and realize that yeah, maybe it's not a great idea to bring a 3-month-old baby to a fancy restaurant or bring your stroller into a crowded dining area, if you can avoid it. 

What can you do? Try these tips that have worked for us:

  • Don't go during rush time. If you want the staff to be as accommodating as possible, showing up at 7 p.m. on a Friday night reduces your chances. A Tuesday early evening arrival? Now you're going to get some leeway.
  • Order ahead. Want to reduce the risk? Some places let you order your food ahead so when you arrive to eat there, you don't have to wait around to order. Or, at the least, know what you want so when the waiter comes, you're ready to go. 
  • Loud restaurants are preferable. A place that already has TVs on, lots of table chatter, and music playing means less attention to fussy babies. 
  • They are called "family restaurants" for a reason. If a place touts itself as a family restaurant, sure, it might not be one of cool spots you used to go to, but they won't care if your baby throws forks on the ground for an hour.
  • If you notice high chairs, you're at the right place. High chairs in an easy-to-access spot means the staff are ready to go when you arrive and won't give you the "Oh c'mon a baby in my section?" look. To your face.
  • A meal game plan. Not for you - you're having what you always have, don't try to pretend otherwise. I mean for your kid. Bring a bottle and a bib. If she's nursing, do you want a table in the corner so she has some privacy? It's not inappropriate to ask. If she just whips those suckers out wherever, that's also cool; you may get pushback from staff and/or ignorant customers but your baby has every right to eat wherever they want. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise or force your wife to use the bathroom to nurse your kid.
  • Snacks. If your kid is old enough to eat solid foods, having Puffs or Cheerios or whatever on hand helps both as a distraction and as a way to calm them down. Don't hold back. Be liberal with the snacks.
  • Taking turns. You might need to do a quick lap around the restaurant holding the baby to soothe them. Take turns doing this if you're out with another couple, and don't feel bad about it. They know you don't want your baby to be fussy, and it's easier to deal with it rather than try to keep up the illusion of conversation while side eyeing the baby. And if you take turns, nobody misses out on too much of the conversation. Speaking of which...
  • Go out with another couple with a baby! You want to not worry about your baby? Have another baby around. There's strength in numbers, and you won't be worried the other people are mad about you needing to deal with baby stuff.
  • Be upfront with the waitress. If you've only gone out once or twice with the baby and you're hoping for a little patience, it's OK to tell the waitress what the deal is and that you appreciate her patience and any help she can provide. Add a little something to the tip and you're set. Honestly, a fussy baby is still probably easier to deal with than half the idiots the waitress serves in a day.
  • Busy hands are happy hands. When your baby gets bored, it's going to either start crying or causing havoc (think throwing salt shakers at people nearby. That's as-salt. #nailedit). If you keep a constant flow of bottles/toys/empty cups/napkins in front of them, you're set. And watch out for steak knives and other dangerous objects sitting nearby that you'd never have near them at home but you might not think about when you're out.
  • Portable seats can work wonders. My son doesn't do well in the high chairs restaurants provide. But a little travel seat - it's plastic, has a tray and buckle straps keep it on the seat - always works for him. He behaves better and eats more. I've used it for trips for just the two of us at Chipotle. It wipes down easy, and because the food is at his level and not higher on a table, he seems to do better. Other styles latch right on the table!

So what do you think? Have you tried to go out to eat with your kid yet? Was it a disaster? Just remember: The way the baby acted the last time doesn't necessarily mean anything about the next time!

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