How to eat at a restaurant with a toddler who has only lived life in lockdown

At Fonda Balam, a counter-only Mexican restaurant.Corey Mintz/The Globe and Mail

Although restaurants have been a central part of my professional life, I have never eaten in one with my daughter. Food is a huge board of our connection. We bake challah together and pick peas in our roadside garden. But my toddler, who we call Puddin’, grew up in a pandemic. So I never had to steer a restaurant visit with her.

A few days before visiting friends and family in Toronto, I asked the good folks on Twitter for tips. Shockingly, I didn’t get any cheek, only genuine, helpful advice, covering everything from logistics to mental preparation:

  • Put the food on the table right away to minimize anxiety.
  • Choose child-friendly restaurants where a little noise won’t bother you.
  • Lunch or early dinner is better.
  • When they act, a parent removes them. Be ready to leave suddenly.
  • Play restaurant at home.
  • Build a restaurant activity set with a collection of toys to help them associate restaurants with fun.
  • Order for her. The time of a busy server is not an educational moment for your child.
  • Walk around with them, but don’t let them walk around alone.
  • While respecting other people, don’t worry so much about disturbing other guests – which doesn’t mean you don’t care at all – that it would distract from what a fun adventure should be.
  • Clean up after them.
  • Ask for the bill while you’re still eating.
  • Tip generously.
  • Be confident that things will go better than you think.

The problem that divides parents is using a device to distract their child. Several people tell me to bring an iPad if I want to enjoy a restaurant. Others insist that a screen is the opposite of the experience we all seek in hospitality.

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A friend warns me that bringing an iPad will irrevocably turn my daughter into a nightmare if we don’t have one, and advises us to make the restaurant fun for her.

I’ve seen kids in restaurants stunned by their screens. Without judgment, her parents looked happy and able to chat and enjoy their meals. But I think restaurants are just as fascinating as any park or museum we might visit. There is so much to see, smell and taste. If letting her watch cartoons means she’ll mentally switch off every time we go out to eat, I don’t think that’s worth the perk of hanging out with friends.

At three restaurant meals, we have a chance to test every piece of advice I’ve received on the road.

The first eatery

Puddin’ is intrigued by Dim Sum King’s collection of crayons, coloring pages, stickers and multicolored pipe cleaners.Corey Mintz/The Globe and Mail

Dim Sum King, on the third floor of a Chinatown building, is the kind of sprawling space where I don’t feel uncomfortable pushing a stroller or buggy right up to our table.

Puddin’ is dazzled by the huge, red-carpeted room where waiters push carts blowing off steam. As we meander to our table, she is entranced and takes a few minutes to sit still just to process the stimulation.

Passing servers offer us Luobo Gao (beet pie) and char siu bao (steamed pork buns). Food is immediately on the table for them. After 30 minutes she starts to wriggle, so I pull a Fantastic Four lunch box out of my backpack. I slowly open the lid to titillate the anticipation and slide it over to Puddin’. For the remainder of the meal, she is mesmerized by the collection of crayons, coloring pages, stickers, and colorful pipe cleaners, pausing occasionally to try a new food, change seats, or swing her neck to record movement in the room.

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The second restaurant

“How soon could we get some fries on the table?” I whisper to the host over our second meal. I chose Barque, a grill restaurant, because I had recently done consulting work for the owner, helping him and his staff make the transition from tipping to pricing that provides workers with a decent wage. But it’s also a noisy place where noisy children are expected. To my delight, the host booth has a bucket of Play-Doh. Puddin’ picks a color and gets totally engrossed until the food comes.

The third restaurant

Those first three restaurant meals of Puddin’ couldn’t feel more triumphant if we’d gone to the moon.Corey Mintz/The Globe and Mail

If you are taking a toddler to dinner, 5pm is the ideal time.

At Fonda Balam—a counter-only Mexican restaurant modeled on Apple Pan in Los Angeles—I order corn for puddin’. She eats the lime slice instead. It’s early for the restaurant, with few other diners scattered about. The waiters have time to coo over our little show pony, which draws attention. However, it is too late for them. After squatting on her stool for 30 minutes pasting sapphire stickers over Wonder Woman’s eyes in a coloring book, she’s in the goof-em-ups phase of her evening.

Around this time she is usually climbing the big rocks in the park, so i can’t blame her for wanting to run around in circles. However, if we allow this behavior to continue in a room where people are trying to serve food and make money, we can absolutely be blamed. I can tell from what the staff has to say that our status is on the knife edge between proud parents of an adorable muppet and careless guardians of a soon-to-be-out-of-control child.

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My wife Victoria takes Puddin outside so I can have some more time with my girlfriend. I apologize to the server. She tells us it’s nothing. Recently, she recounts, there was a kid operating a remote-controlled truck that whizzed around her feet while she carried plates, and another group of parents who sat on the patio and let their kids run around inside the restaurant, even afterwards the bar, unaccompanied.

I feel better. But I know enough to play with a high note. We say goodbye and leave with a collection of new memories and renewed confidence as parents.

All parents dream of sharing their interests with their child. Why else would a sane adult put skis on a child? All I know is that restaurants have been my job for the past 20 years. And I love being a father more than I could have imagined. So it felt like a lot depended on merging those two worlds.

Despite that pressure, those first three restaurant meals of Puddin’ couldn’t have felt more triumphant if we’d gone to the moon.

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