Eating out with kids: Tips to avoid a nightmare

As soon as you have children, you realize that some of the most enjoyable things you used to do become the most stressful: sleeping, showering and dining out.

But you’ll learn that there are a few tricks to snagging these moments back from your munchkin. If you hire a night nurse, you’ll be able to sleep occasionally (and yes, your child will eventually sleep through the night). If you pop your baby into one of about a dozen rocking contraptions, you can get clean.

And you can actually teach your child to …  enjoy going to restaurants.

But you’ll have to actually go out to eat in order to teach your child about restaurant etiquette.

Nicole Weldzius started on day one.

“The day he came home from the hospital, we ate out,” says the mom of Wyatt, who will turn 2 in April. She’s also the Chicago host of Nibble& Squeak, a group that hosts food events for kids and their parents at high-end restaurants including Frontera Grill and Mon Ami Gabi.

Since dining at fancy restaurants was something that Weldzius and her husband enjoyed pre-baby, they decided they weren’t going to let a child get in the way of their experiences. And he hasn’t.

Wyatt’s favorite spots are Summerhouse, Au Cheval (he adores the liver pate there) and Frontera.

Her tricks: “If we were to go to a nice restaurant, like Boka, I go to the first seating,” Weldzius says.

Wondering how she got her kid to order the liver pate? She doesn’t always order off the children’s menu—and doesn’t mind if they don’t offer it.

“I love when a restaurant has a kids’ menu, but I also love when it doesn’t,” Weldzius says. “It gives us more options.”

There’s no reason to go to the fanciest restaurants if you don’t feel comfortable going to them, and there are plenty that cater to children, says Eirene Heidelberger, a mom of three ranging from 5 to 12, and president and founder of GIT Mom, a Chicago-based parent coaching company.

In 2014, there was a big uproar at Alinea, after Chef Grant Achatz tweeted about a couple who brought their 8-month-old crying child to his Michelin-starred restaurant to the dismay of other diners. It caused a Twitter firestorm, and some people wondered if babies should be allowed at the fanciest, most expensive restaurants in Chicago.

Achatz didn’t ask the parents and their baby to leave.

But, Heidelberger says, “A family has to think about, ‘Where are you best using your dollars and why are you subjecting yourself to a four-hour dinner when a toddler has a 20-minute attention span?’” she says. “I’m not here to judge, but I’m here to be real on what a child can manage in a public space.”

Katrina Josephson doesn’t like cooking, so she found plenty of places to dine with her daughter and started eating out when her baby reached the ripe old age of 2 weeks.

Josephson always chooses casual restaurants sans tablecloths because she learned the hard way that white tablecloths can get tugged on too easily.

At 5 p.m., it’s go-time, since Talia, now 1, gets up from her nap at 4:30. Another reason why 5 p.m. is golden?

“It’s also less busy at that time,” Josephson says. “We are usually flexible with where we’re going and have a few restaurants in mind just in case there is a long wait—we can’t waste good behavior time standing in an entry way.”

When they do get their seats, Josephson doesn’t put Talia in her highchair right away, as there’s only a limited amount of time that she’ll stay seated—and Josephson wants to reserve this for meal time.

Instead, Josephson keeps Talia on her lap and brings out the books and toys. “I have one baby app on my phone, but it’s only used in desperate measures.”

The bag of toys is essential for Nicki Shamley’s kids, who are 2 and 3.

“We do use books and colors and mama’s secret bag of restaurant treats—stickers, magnetic toys—if needed,” says Shamley, who lives in West Rogers Park.

The dollar section at Target is Shamley’s go-to spot for her bag of restaurant treats, and she switches out the treats regularly.

That bag is key, Heidelberger says.

“I think every mom should have a special restaurant bag of whatever turns her kid on,” Heidelberger says. “Play-Doh, flip books, stickers, crayons … but these are special things that only come out at the restaurants.”

Marena Parrish, of Woodridge, dines out regularly with her 1-year-old twins, Graham and Gavin. She likes to be prepared by always bringing her own travel high chairs.

“They’re smaller, so they wiggle around too much in the restaurant ones,” she says.

She brings the Inglesina Fast Table Chair high chairs ($69 at Amazon.com), which take a minute to set up and fit into a beach tote.

She also never takes her sons out if it’s going to take them off their schedule.

“If it goes off their schedule, they’re good in the restaurant because they’re stimulated, but there will be a choir on the way home,” Parrish says.

Snacks are also important, she says.

As her son got older, Allyson Becker, who lives in the West Loop, stopped bringing snacks and started ordering Ethan’s meal to arrive when her salad or appetizer did.

Then, when the adult meal arrives, she orders Ethan’s ice cream.

Kid-friendly restaurants in Chicago

We love these because they love our children—and they taste great, too.

Crosby’s Kitchen

There’s a kid’s sink in the restaurant so your little one can wash his hands before eating. There’s stroller parking and plenty of kids-eat-free days. The kids menu is huge and yummy, and the adult menu is crave-worthy. 3455 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.

Little Goat Diner

Stephanie Izard is one of us now, so she caters to our crowd with a big kids menu, a kids’ sundae and food that we heart, too. 820 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

Café Ba-Ba-Reeba

This was one of our faves pre-kids, so we were ecstatic to learn that it’s just as good post-kids. They’ve even got tiny tapas for your tiny sidekick. 2024 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

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