This February, my wife and I made our annual winter pilgrimage to Delray Beach, Florida to visit my grandmother. Only this time, we weren’t alone.
With our 11-month-old son in tow, our relaxing Florida getaway was…well, different from previous years. No matter. Out with the par-3 golf, live music and long hours on the beach; in with the early-morning stroller walks, short alternating trips to the beach during naptime, and lots of happy bouncing around in the very shallow end of the pool.
And then there were the dinners.
Anyone who has ever had a baby (and I’m guessing that’s all of you) knows that when you take the little tyke to dinner, it’s a race against the clock. As parents, we’re all slaves to the bedtime. If baby stays up well past that bedtime, you’re asking for trouble.
Try as we might in Florida, we encountered that trouble head-on. You would think an 11-month-old’s schedule would align perfectly with a 92-year-old grandmother’s: early dinners, afternoon naps, in bed by 8:00. Not my grandmother, who has the energy and social life of a high school cheerleader. As such, our attempts at 5:30 dinners out were thwarted by some expertly subtle stalling on grandma’s part. She’ll eat dinner when she’s good and ready, thank you very much.
Long story short, we didn’t once get our son to bed before about 9 p.m. (i.e. a solid two hours past his ideal bedtime) during our entire Florida trip. The result was frequent wake-ups, middle-of-the-night feedings, overtiredness the following day and some serious crankiness on the long flight back to Vermont. The baby did all those things, too.
It took several weeks to get our son back on his normal sleeping schedule –all for a few dinners out at a more sensible, grandmother-friendly hour. Never again, we swore. From that trip forward, nothing but early-bird-special dinner times. At least until our son goes to college.
Though our dinners out with baby have been less frequent since the Florida debacle, I think we’re starting to get them down to a science. And by science, I of course mean: he’s not up all night after we get home.
We’re still fine-tuning our process. But here are my tips for a speedy, tantrum-free, everybody-get-to-bed-on-time dinner out with your baby or toddler:
1. Make a reservation. This is something you can’t risk. You don’t want to be hovering around the bar area with a baby in one hand, a beer in the other, and the buzzer for your table dangling awkwardly out of your pants pocket. There’s a finite amount of time your baby can tolerate spending in a crowded restaurant. Don’t waste any of it waiting for a table.
2. Bring lots of Cheerios. At least 200 of them should do. Plop them in front of baby the second you sit him or her in their high chair. That should last you about 15 minutes—or at least until you’ve put your drink orders in.
3. Bring more food. When the Cheerios run dry, you’ll need a backup delicacy to keep your baby occupied. Packets, string cheeses and rice cakes work well—food your baby is capable of helping himself to, no spoons necessary. Careful, though: if baby likes the packet way more than he likes the Cheerios or rice cakes, he may forsake all other foods until he gets another packet. So either bring multiple packets or avoid the top-shelf packets and the bring the “well” packets that baby sort of likes, but not enough to make him forget the comparatively delicious rice cakes.
4. NEVER order an appetizer. Time is of the essence, here. Don’t get greedy, even if you’re starving and baby seems perfectly content at the outset. Order a really large entrée if you have to. Regardless, the quicker you can get said entrée in front of you, the less chance of a mid-restaurant meltdown, and the greater chance everyone goes to bed happy and early.
5. No dessert either. Duh.
6. Ask for the check early… like maybe when you order your entrees. There’s no telling when that waiter’s coming back otherwise. Oh, and have your credit card at the ready when the check does arrive. You don’t want to risk another long layover between check delivery and check pickup.
7. Take turns eating, if necessary. Right around the time your entrees arrive is inevitably when baby starts to get a bit antsy. He’ll beg out of his high chair and, if he’s old enough, may want to walk around the joint and say “hi” to some of these fine patrons. Instead of trying to eat with baby in your lap and thus risk a mashed potato-covered infant or, worse, your plate shattering in a million porcelain pieces on the floor if your little guy gets hold of it, take turns eating. The faster eater—typically Dad—scarfs down his meal first while the other takes baby on a stroll around the restaurant. Then you switch. Wash, rinse, repeat.
8. If all else fails, get a doggy bag. You have a microwave at home. That almond-crusted tilapia tastes even better with baby fast asleep in his crib.