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Kids in restaurants: NY Times writer seeks guidance

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I had so much luck with my last posting on Chowhound (a request for tips on how to eat on the road) that I'm trying again. This time, I'm writing an article for the Times's New Jersey section (for which I review restaurants every other week) on dining out with children.

I'm not talking about McDonald's or kid-themed places like Chuck E. Cheese but about "fine dining" establishments where children under, say, 12 are welcomed warily, if at all.

· Do you know of restaurants that handle these visits better (or worse) than others?
· Parental techniques for controlling small diners?
· Personal war stories, good and bad?

I'd be especially grateful to hear from restaurant owners and chefs. Thanks again for all your help last time, and for any contributions you can make this time.

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    Gregory White

    I like the way my sister-in-law handles my niece and nephew. If they're acting up to the point that they might be disturbing others, they are informed that, unless they calm down, they are leaving. Unlike some people, though, she will actually do it. Now they know that when she says something, she means business.

    1. One tip is Magna Doodle, which is an erasable sketch pad. Nothing to fall on the floor. Nothing to lose. And, if the kid likes to draw, doodle, or whatever, he/she can amuse himself. Or, the adult can play games with the kid.

      1. Kids--and therefore their parents--do best when they don't have to wait too long for the food.

        Considerate staff understands that making the kids feel welcome--bringing little umbrellas for the kids' drinks, showing kids how to fold the napkins in a fancy way, that sort of thing--will make the parents feel welcome, too. In this kind of environment, everyone is more likely to relax and enjoy themselves.

        Another big help is when a restaurant goes out of its way to adapt a dish for picky eaters: They know, for example, that it's probably not OK for the mashed potatoes to touch the chicken, and that ketchup has to be served with almost everything.

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          Gabriel Solis

          I don't live in NY, so I can't really suggest any places that are kid-friendly, but I have a 3 year old son and some ideas generally about kids and restaurants:

          1) It is a parent's responsibility to enculturate (or socialize, if you like) his or her child into the experience of eating in restaurants. The more you do take your kids to restaurants (I mean real ones, not fast food, not kidlands), the easier it will be for them because they will learn what to expect and thus cope better.

          It is also the parents' responsibility to help their child behave appropriately in a restaurant. It is absolutely vital that the child understand that he or she will not be allowed to stay and disrupt everyone's meal (including people at other tables).

          2) In my experience, ethnic restaurants are often more kid-friendly than, say, French places. It seems to be because, on the one hand, Ethiopian/Mexican/Lebanese/Soul Food/etc. places are somewhat less formal, and thus have an easier time accomodating kids, and, on the other hand, these cultures are often more family-oriented/less generally kid-hostile than Euro-American culture, especially urban Euro-America.

          Some will say that kids have a hard time with the strange flavors and unfamiliar foods at these sorts of places, but I've never really experienced that. My son, for example, 's favorite food is chicken and rice. I've found that he will eat virtually any permutation of this combination, and it is quite possibly the most variable, most common thing that is eaten cross-culturally. (We're lucky, he'll also eat lots of veggies and fish, both things lots of kids won't touch). If parents want to have kids who do well in restaurants they really need to help their kids learn to eat broadly--which means exposing them to lots of flavors early and regularly at home and in restaurants. Don't give kids the option of ketchup on everything and they will be less likely to demand it.

          3) Another thought: if you're taking your kids with you to a bistro-type place (I say get a baby sitter and go alone, but...), pick a place with a patio and sit outside (weather permitting, of course). Kids voices carry really well, and everyone is happier if they're not doing so inside. Plus, kids often dig the novelty of eating outdoors. Finally, go a little early. The nine-o'clock seating is going to be less kid-friendly than the six-o'clock one most places.

          Gabriel

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          1. re: Gabriel Solis

            I'd like to vouch for the importance of making sure that parents follow through on actually hauling a misbehaving child out of a restaurant. I apparently threw a tantrum once (at Bob's Big Boy - I wanted the shrimp, or so I'm told...) at age three when I was out for dinner and was promptly taken home. That was the first and last time it happened. I do remember starting to act up a few times later on, and seeing my parents begin to shift and reach for our coats shut me right up since I knew they meant business!

          2. Gabriel Solis made really good points. It is crucial to tell kids they can't stay if they misbehave and to enforce that. Embarrassing but essential. Try to stick to places where you won't have to wait long for the food. And if there is going to be any kind of wait, ask the waiter to help you out by bringing something to keep the wolf from the door, even if it's only bread and butter. Always ask if you can get something right away for the kids-- most waiters will be glad to bring you an appetizer that doesn't take much prep in a hurry so you can stave off hungry boredom. And don't forget common sense--if you've got little kids, don't let the waiter fill their glasses right up to the brim. If your kids like being read to, bring a book--you can always read to them quietly if polite conversation isn't exciting enough.