By Kristina Schnack Kotlus, Contributing Writer
You hear about how difficult it can be to find a restaurant that accommodates food allergies, religious restrictions or specialized diets. However, there is one dining challenge that trumps them all: Eating out with young children, which can be a special order beyond anything you’ve ever seen.
In my family, we’ve been fairly lucky, because our three kids are adventurous eaters. Our middle child can be, as we call it, “a connoisseur.” During the summer in my mother’s garden, he’ll eat tomatoes as if they’re apples, but put one of those cardboard- tasting winter tomatoes on his sandwich in January, and he’ll flick it at you with a look of disgust. I see a job as a restaurant critic in his future.
Of course, that is nothing compared to my (not so distant) days of dining out with babies and toddlers. The first time we tried to go out to eat after having our daughter, we took our boys for Thai. She was 8 weeks old and would not stop crying, so I sat in the car and nursed, while my hubby and the boys finished dinner. They did bring me some lovely green curry when they were done, though. But somehow the ambiance was lost.
Over time, moms learn the tricks of the trade that allow them to confidently dine out with kids. I asked my PWCMoms.com readers for helpful hints, and here are some of the responses I got. I hope that these words of “mom wisdom” will help you enjoy a night away from your oven in the near future.
- Don’t be afraid to venture off the kids menu. Whether you are dealing with picky eaters, gluten intolerance or kids with severe “grown-up food envy,” ordering an appetizer or a handful of sides can fill them up and keep them happy.
- Share your plate, starting when your kids are very young. Kids need several exposures to decide if they like something. Share bites of your food with your children. This lets them sample new tastes without the pressure of having to eat a plateful. And if they ask for some, never tell them, “You won’t like it.”
- Go prepared. If you choose to go out at 6 p.m. on a Friday night, be ready for the wait list. Pack some Cheerios® and coloring books and give the kids a small snack before you go. Or plan to dine a little early and avoid the rush and subsequent wait. If you know your child will only make it for half an hour or 45 minutes before getting cranky or misbehaving, consider visiting a restaurant with call-ahead or carryout service. Some establishments will let you order your food before coming in so that when you get your table, your food is ready.
- Plan ahead if you have “issues.” Whether your child has food allergies or you have religious dietary restrictions, a glance at the menu, even if it’s on your phone in the parking lot, can save you a fight with a hungry child in the restaurant. Help prepare your kids for what they can eat, rather than letting them pick something they can’t and having to battle it out with them.
- BYOKF (Bring Your Own Kid Food). One reader who didn’t want to compromise her taste buds to dine out with her young child suggested bringing separate food for toddlers. (You’d want to call ahead to get the restaurant’s approval.) Over time, she started sneaking in some pad thai or vindaloo among her son’s chicken nuggets. She’s proud to report that he grew into an adventurous eater, although he still enjoys the occasional McDonald’s run.
- Know where you can go. Many of my readers have kids with food restrictions. Zpizza in Gainesville and Manassas, Not Your Average Joe’s in Woodbridge and Potomac Mills Silver Diner are among area establishments they recommended. When you’re traveling, the local chamber of commerce might be able to let you know which local eateries can handle your dietary requests.
A final word of advice: Remember that this, too, shall pass. One day you will look back fondly on the days of spaghetti- smeared faces or cranky 2-year-olds who won’t eat anything green. In the meantime, I hope that my readers’ suggestions—and a healthy sense of humor—can help you to enjoy the adventure of family dining.
Kristina Schnack Kotlus is a local mother of three children and the owner of PWCMoms.com, a resource for parents and families in Prince William County.