When we were growing up, going out to dinner was a mostly adults-only past time. Sure, we may have been taken along for birthdays or special occasions, but heading out for a meal was something mum and dad usually did when we were left with a babysitter. These days, Aussie families are doing dinner out very differently.
“Today’s parents dine out with kids more than previous generations, forking out $8.9 billion in the last year alone,” says Tim Domelow from restaurant reservation platform, OpenTable. Restaurants have taken note with more venues catering to little customers. We spoke to Paul Douglas from Bam Bam Italian about the dos and don’ts of eating out with kids.
1. Do your research
Enjoying a meal out together as a family starts with choosing the right venue. According to OpenTable, at least half of all parents prefer restaurants with a play area, toys or colouring books and pencils while 38 per cent want to know if there’s space for a pram. “At Bam Bam Italian, the rear of the restaurant opens onto a play area so if we know which customers are bringing children we can ensure they are seated there,” Paul says. If you’ll need a highchair, kids meal or any other special requests, it’s best to call ahead and mention when you book. And if a restaurant says they don’t welcome kids? “Look for another one, plenty of restaurants do,” Paul says.
2. Involve the kids
“Children learn by watching us and copying,” Paul says. “They need to learn how to behave in restaurants and screens at the table means they lose out on this chance.” A recent family dinner at a fine dining restaurant reminded me kids can get a kick out of playing grown-ups - if only for the first 10 minutes. Before the novelty wore off, the kids were shown how to put a napkin on their lap, hold the menu and say thank you to the waiter pouring water. After orders were taken they were handed brand new colouring books and pencils to keep them busy until the first course arrived and it was time work out which knife and fork to use. “We owe it to them to let them learn this way so try to give screens a miss,” Paul says. “Instead, play hangman on a napkin or bring cards for a game while you wait for your meals.” If a screen is the only thing that makes dining out with your kids possible, Paul recommends headphones or muting the sound to avoid disturbing other diners.
3. Ask before unpacking snacks
Giving your toddler a muesli bar while you tuck into Peking duck is one thing, but if you’ve brought along a picnic for half the table, have a word with your waiter before you plate up. “If you do need to provide your child with BYO food it is courteous to ask permission from staff,” Paul suggests. “In most cases, restaurants will make exceptions for allergies or specific dietary needs but if your child is old enough to eat solids then I believe parents have a responsibility to teach them about new foods. Restaurants can be the perfect place for this.”
4. Time it right
If the kids always eat at 6 pm, choose a restaurant that opens even earlier and be first there. “Being early means you get quicker service and meals should arrive promptly as the kitchen won't be under the pump yet,” Paul says. “Not only is avoiding hunger tantrums important, but even a booked out restaurant will often have space for a family from 5 pm and you can get back for their bedtime routine.”
5. Be respectful
Even the most relaxed family-friendly restaurant will frown at kids running, shouting and throwing things but remember it’s up to parents, not waiters, to keep kids in line. “These rules must be imposed by the parents, not restaurant staff,” Paul says, adding that no one, regardless of age, should disturb other guests. That’s why it’s worth saving tiny spaces (like that 16-seater locavore pop-up you’ve been wanting to try) and extra posh restaurants for nights when you book a babysitter. “Let's face it, sometimes we just want to have a date night and get away from kids so there will always be some places to eat that only cater for adults,” Paul says.
To find the perfect venue for your next family dinner head to www.opentable.com.au.