date night with mama

I'm about to leave for a trip to California, solo. It's hard to go just about anywhere without my little girl, but when I do, I try to make sure she and I do something really fun together--sans distractions-- the night before I leave. It just so happens Andras had to work late, which used to bum me out (I love when we're all home for dinner), but I've changed my tune. It's the perfect excuse for breaking tradition and hitting the town, just Greta and me, for a dinner date.

It's amazing that all kids really want from us is our undivided attention. Ironically, for a mommy who cooks, our own kitchen and dinner table, as healthful, important and harmonious as it is, isn't the best place for that. I'm always jumping up to finish cooking, ladle another bowlful of soup or grab a cloth to wipe Greta's chin. And I can only imagine how those demands double and triple as a family grows. On the flip side, out at a restaurant, I can't see dirty dishes, and they aren't my responsibility even if I could. I'm not responsible for setting the plates or pouring the milk or creating all the other magic that goes into a meal. It's just Greta and me and this experience. I can look in her eyes. Listen to her sweet voice and all of these amazing, brand new words forming into sentences that never sounded sweeter.

I know, you're skeptical. Eating out with kids is supposed to be a nightmare. But it's amazing what happens to a child when you ask them, "Do you want to go somewhere special tonight with mommy?" Their eyes light up. Put them in an outfit you find adorable, if only for your own indulgence, and just like when you yourself dress up to go out with your husband, your little one will start to get in the mood.

Our special place is, mercifully, right down stairs at Bear Restaurant, an advantage of urban living. I admit, it helps to know that if things go terribly wrong, we can scoot out and home quickly. But I'd happily walk another ten blocks or more to sit in a booth next to my girl, watching her scan the room, learning, observing and adopting restaurant behavior and manners from the big people around her.

People have all kinds of opinions about taking babes and toddlers out to dinner. We've been doing it on since day one, so yes, in a sense she's learned a bit about the etiquette of eating, but we don't do it often, and it's never too late to try. Caveat, I haven't yet parented a boy. But despite the fact Greta's just like any toddler and can go from happy to hungry in an instant, is capable of enormous messes, and can get an incurable case of the fidgets anywhere we might want her to sit still, you'd be amazed at how well behaved a child at this age can be when you sit them up in a booth by candlelight and make them feel that you're taking this time-out from the normal scheduled routine just to be with them. Let them give your world a try. Use the grown-up spoon they find before them. Butter their bread themselves, just like you. Most restaurants worth their salt will be accommodating; and it's sort of a thrill to un-tuck the cloth napkin from your little one's chin after the meal and know that's one bib you won't have to wash yourself. I'll pay good money for that.

I suppose I adopted this mentality from my two older sisters, who, not wanting to miss the best new restaurants on their annual trips to see me in New York, brought their toddlers in tow. I remember one occasion at Craft, when they first opened, telling my tiny toddler niece Grace to walk like a lady as she scooted the narrow passage between tables about a dozen times, going back and forth from her mama to me. And you know what? She did! It was fun for her to have the chance to behave, and just as much, for us. And, when she got a case of the fumble fidgets, the open kitchen, more common now in many restaurants than not, provided thrilling entertainment. 

It's not for everyone, but if you remove the concept of luxuriating over your own meal (order a one-course home run), skip the precarious glass of wine and just have a real date--face to face, eye to eye, with the little one you adore, you might find a dinner date with your toddler surprisingly sweet. And satisfying. 

I'll be back with Greta and Andras in a few days. In the meantime, I'm cooking in San Diego with my sis, my brother-in-law and my now-oh-so-grown-up nephew, who's overdue for some undivided Aunt Sarah time, hard to come by once your aunt becomes a mama herself. Today, I'm looking forward to nothing more than a date night with him.

I'd love to hear from you--what's your experience eating out with your kids? Any what traditions do you have for making one-on-one time that's a pleasure for you and your babes, both? 


momskitchenhandbook said...

That is so lovely. I agree that so much of it has to do with what your expectations are a parent and where you choose to eat. If you get those two things right, dining out with little ones can, indeed, be pretty sweet.

Amelia Sherry said...

What a sweet, intimate description of your date night! Greta sounds like a doll...

At 14 months, my daughter is younger but we've been taking her out to eat in restaurants since she's been able to sit up on her own. (Even earlier than that, though she slept through those meals.)

We've always had a wonderful experience with her. It gives her an opportunity to taste things I wouldn't normally cook, as well as different ways of preparing things we already eat on the regular.

As far as behavior, Isla's no angel but she appears to be when we're eating out... btwn the diversion of the food and all that there is to see and hear, she's usually much too busy taking everything in to fidget or cry. (Bar those times when she is exhausted!)

Great post! Eating out with little ones is a culinary AND social treat!

With Style and Grace said...

What a great post! I'm with you, I think it's wonderful bringing your child to dinner. Growing up, my parents always brought my sister & I out to dinner with them. I'm excited to be able to do that with our little guy!

Kate Ramos said...

We love going out to eat with our kids. We've been taking our 4-year-old out to restaurants from the very beginning and now with the baby in tow its even more fun. Our little girl always seems to behave better at a restaurant than at home!

Sarah Copeland said...

Ladies, or shall I say Mamas...I love these stories! I'm so glad I'm not the only crazy one who things eating out with little is super fun! Katie, love your two rules (setting the right expectations and choosing the spot well). Amelia, I LOVED those sleep beside you meals when Greta was tiny, too. But so love what you said about how your daughter appears to be an angel when you're eating out. It's as if the ambiance has a magic charm on toddlers. Truly! Kate, super admire you doing this with two. I'll be checking back with you for hints when we get there. Lisa, looks like you'll have to bring your little man around when he gets here to meet all these little girls. I can't wait to keep up on it all on With Style and Grace Baby. Thanks for coming by and for your comments!

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.