Babies are wonderful for many things, but they’re not always the best dinner dates. Sure, they look cute, but their table manners leave a lot to be desired and they almost never offer to split the bill. But Isabel Mohan has been there, done that, and got the spaghetti-stained t-shirt…
As a classic insufferable Londoner, I was adamant that becoming a mum would not interfere with my glamorous lifestyle of being fairly crap at cooking. So, at 20 months, my little boy can tell you where to get the best overpriced microwaved mac and cheese with a side order of crayons in south east London and which stressed mummy haven begrudgingly serves the best babyccino. When I say he can tell you, I mean he can say “yoghurt”. But I know what he means.
Along the way, we’ve picked up a few tips. No wait, we’ve PAID a lot of tips, to apologise for all the mess, but also here’s some stuff we’ve learned…
1. Start ‘em young
How smug I was when, at four or so months, the manager of a Michelin-starred gastro pub on the south coast (just when you thought I couldn’t sound any more awful) remarked that my little darling was “one of the best babies who’s ever been here” (obvs I am still smug about this or I wouldn’t have just typed it on the internet. And yes, we tipped accordingly).
But how naïve I was too. Four month old babies do nothing, literally nothing. Especially my extra lazy one. In fact, my main bit of advice for anyone wanting to eat out with a baby is to get it out of your system while they’re immobile and can be muted with a boob. But if you want to venture out once they’re older and can actually eat food themselves, it’s probably worthwhile to start them young so they get used to formal-ish dining environments just like fancy French babies who don’t throw food.
2. It’s all in the timing
There’s only one thing worse than babies in restaurants, and that’s tired babies in restaurants. If your little one naps after lunch, like most babies and the entire population of the Mediterranean tend to, you’ll want to be impatiently pacing around outside your chosen venue at 11.48am, ready to burst through the doors, cause a kerfuffle with your buggy and order as close to midday as possible, so you can be out of there before they start flagging.
Doesn’t sound relaxing enough for you? Then why not take bubs out for dinner instead? By dinner I mean 5pm. Possibly 4.45. This is a particularly nice thing to do en famille at weekends when restaurants and pubs are full to the brim of terrible people like you. And by you I mean me.
3. Think outside the pizza box
Family-orientated chain restaurants are – obviously – great with kids. Pizza Express, Giraffe and, my little boy’s personal favourite during his 20 month culinary odyssey, Bill’s, are all equipped with stacks of highchairs, affordable kiddy menus and staff who’ve been well-trained to pretend they don’t hate you.
But, if you’re too cool for chains (a delusion many of us experience, until FREE CRAYONS), these aren’t the only options. We’ve also had successful dining experiences at tapas joints (constant flow of food, good chance for your baby to try different things but they can always fall back on patatas bravas plus – sweeping generalisation – Spanish people love babies so they won’t resent you), Chinese restaurants and lots and lots of random pubs. Basically, anywhere with an IKEA Antilop highchair, because sitting them in anything else is overrated.
4. Bring back-up
Once your baby is properly on solids, it’s a bit off to bring your own food out with you all the time. Plus, you’re eating out – this is a special treat which is ruined if you still have to prepare a flavourless pasta bake that they’ll probably throw on the floor. But hors d’ouevres in the form of breadsticks or those cardboardy baby crisps are fine. Essential, in fact, to keep your squawker quiet while you wait for the proper food to arrive. Don’t leave the house without them. The breadsticks, that is. The baby is optional, if you’ve got a good babysitter.
5. In fact, bring everything
The most crucial thing you can bring when dining out with your baby is ALL THE THINGS. Items that can provide up to six whole minutes of distraction without being too irritating for fellow diners include Duplo bricks, crayons, felt tips, stickers, your purse, your mobile phone, your sunglasses… all the crap that you don’t let them play with at home, basically. Deploy them gradually so that when there’s a hold-up on the fishfinger sandwiches, you can bring out the big guns (your car keys).
6. Order wisely
Mess at home is manageable. But mess in a restaurant can be stressful. If you haven’t packed a full-body bib and/or change of clothes (for you AND them), don’t order anything for them involving beans, spaghetti or excessive sauce in general. Far less messy options include fishfingers, pizza, chips, anything bread-based – oh yeah, this isn’t a time for “clean eating” (the time for clean eating is about three days after hell freezes over, FYI). Bear this in mind when choosing your own meal too, since babies always prefer other people’s food to their own.
7. Remember some people just hate your kid
Some people enjoy tutting and sighing whenever they see anyone under the age of 28, so certain they are of imminent annoyance. This, quite frankly, is their problem – your baby has just as much right to be whining and dining as everyone else. But miserable old bores are best ignored, so don’t bother trying to engage them in a game of peekaboo. Instead, just have a nice time and hopefully annoy them all the more by not actually doing anything to annoy them.
The main annoying thing that little people do in restaurants is move around. I know right, how very dare they? But the thing is, while you think they look super-cute toddling through the restaurant, pulling down condiment displays and tripping up waitresses, in reality even to people who quite like kids, this is a bit annoying (and a bit dangerous). Of course, your newly mobile kid quite rightly feels cooped up in a highchair and is delightfully curious about the world around them, which is fine – let ‘em stretch their legs, invite them on loo trips but hold their hand all the way and ideally let them toddle outside or at least away from the main dining area. Soz.
8. Know when to cut your losses
If your baby kicks off and nothing is helping, just take them outside. You will look like a responsible, caring, considerate mother and everyone will feel more relaxed. If this happens when you’re still eating, get your food bagged up to finish at home. Remember, unlike unfinished Eggs Benedict, revenge is a dish best served cold, so why not just write this off as a bad day and secretly vow to get outrageously drunk in front of all their friends at their 18th birthday party?
9. Feign a vague interest in clearing up
Look, we all know those baby wipes and that grubby muslin aren’t going to cut it when it comes to clearing up the inevitable trail of destruction your little foodie will leave on, around and under the table, but don’t just sneak off. Instead, half-heartedly pretend to clear up the mess – hey, maybe even politely ask for a cloth “because I’m so mortified at how much mess my baby’s made!’ – and soon the staff will be swarming around you with industrial-sized brooms and mops that exist for this very purpose. You’ll look like the bigger person and, more importantly, won’t risk getting your food gobbed on should you venture into the establishment again.
10. If all else fails… heeeeeere’s Peppa
Nobody likes how they feel when they resort to thrusting a screen into their kid’s face to shut them up. Especially in public, because we want people to think we’re amazing, hands-on, creative, engaged parents. But in some situations – plane journeys, hangovers – it’s essential. Seriously, what did people do before the internet? HOW DID THEY HAVE CHILDREN? It makes me feel sick. So, anyway, if the toys have failed, the crayons have failed and the food has failed, whip out your device of choice and fire up YouTube/Netflix/the CBeebies app. Voila, total silence… well, apart from Daddy Pig’s voice booming across the restaurant….