When I was pregnant I was sure I wasn’t going to let having children change my life.
“My baby is going to fit around MY lifestyle” I would loudly proclaim to anyone who’d listen, feeling confident that I’d strap my new child to my chest and go about my business, continuing to eat out at nice restaurants and spend weekends guzzling wine while scouring East London for vintage clothes.
HA HA HA HA HA. Don’t you love the optimism of pregnancy?
With two kids, life is definitely more Milton Keynes than Hackney Wick and vintage silk has been forgotten in favour of M&S cotton, but one thing has remained: eating out in lovely (and sometimes not-so lovely) restaurants is one of our favourite things to do as a family.
How do you get your kids to eat well in restaurants? is one of the questions I’m asked most often.
It hasn’t been an easy process, but as eating out has always been so important to my family it’s something I’ve worked hard at perfecting since my children were born. And now at the ages of 5 and 7, I can genuinely say that I’m happy and relaxed taking them out to any restaurant, from street food to Michelin starred.
Here’s how we did it:
Eating Out With Kids
Start ’em young
I have always tended to eat out at least once a week, so from an early age my children became accustomed to busy restaurants. At this stage they were obviously tiny babies and didn’t know any different, but I worked hard to feel relaxed in this situation so they’d chill out, too.
Take your own high chair
As soon as my children were physically able they’d sit up in a high chair so they could take part in the meal, even if they weren’t eating; restaurant high chairs seem to be on the roomy side for some reason and my babes were both small, so I’d take along my own clip-on seat that I know they’d fit in. This also had the benefit of familiarity for the kids, with them feeling comfortable in a seat they knew well.
Practice at home
Eating in is almost as much fun for us as eating out, and we spend a lot of time having family meals at home. This doesn’t happen every evening – the children usually eat earlier than I do – but mostly at the weekends, when we invite family and friends to eat with us. This has always been such a great time for the kids, as well as the grown-ups: they get to practice their restaurant-level manners and get used to the pace of a two- or three-course meal.
Make it an event
I always talk to the children about how lucky we are that we get to eat out so much – I never want it to stop being a treat – so every time we eat out I make sure it’s a bit of an event. For example, if we’re at Wagamamas the kids use chopsticks and when we go for an Indian they’re encouraged to try something they’ve never eaten before.
On Saturday nights we sometimes dress up, go out to a restaurant and stay up late as a treat (we call it ‘family date night’): it’s always a fun and exciting experience.
Don’t be ashamed of the electronic babysitter
We’ve all seen the families out to dinner, each one of them on their phone or a tablet instead of talking with each other. Personally I believe that meals out are an amazing way to connect and engage with your family, but with all the will in the world your fun conversation won’t always convince a cranky 4 year old to sit still for an hour and a half.
I always take all the crayons and the activity packs a restaurant has to offer (Jamie’s Italian are our favourites for this) but without fail there’s an ’emergency iPad’ in my bag in case things get hairy.
Hux is a prime example of how I relax when I take the kids out to dinner. He’s not a fan of salad or vegetables, so at home he eats a combination of the 5 or 6 veggies he’ll deign to put in his mouth, which all goes out the window when we eat out. So he wants to eat a beige lunch of breadsticks, macaroni cheese and vanilla ice cream? Fine by me: I’ll give him double cucumber for dinner, and we’ll have a much more relaxed meal time if I’m not trying to sneakily stuff tomatoes into his mouth.
Similarly, kids are going to make a mess: it’s what they do, it’s their purpose on this planet. Don’t stress about leaving your table covered in crumbs and sauce, the waiting staff will be used to it. I used to leave a couple of extra quid as a tip by way of apology for the spread on the floor of the children’s meals, but these days they’re so used to dining out the majority of their food remains on their plate.
What tips would you add when it comes to dining out with your kids?