To say that life 'changes' after kids is the mother of all understatements.
Life as a parent is generally unrecognisable from your former, child-free existence – you remember, those halcyon days when you could spontaneously rock up to the latest romantic restaurant and sip fancy drinks, all without a nappy bag in sight...
Today, eating out as a family generally involves military-style planning and a truck load of child-related paraphernalia. But that doesn’t mean it’s an activity you should avoid, or indeed that it’s something that you can’t enjoy.
Learning the appropriate way to act in different situations is a key life skill for young children, and dining in public with other family members is a great way to build confidence and is constructive for their social development. But you do need to be prepared.
“As a father and a chef, the main problem I find when it comes to eating out with children is the lack of healthy homemade options available for the kids in many restaurants, since the dishes on offer are often mostly processed or frozen food,” says dad-of-two and executive chef at Saladicious & Grillz in Citywalk Isterling Alvarado.
“It can also be a problem to keep little ones’ behaviour in check if the restaurant isn’t particularly kid-friendly.”
While at chef Isterling’s restaurant Saladicious in Citywalk they have children’s table and chairs, a chalkboard for colouring, and the staff are encouraged to interact with and entertain any child customers, this is not the case in all UAE eateries. But there are a few things parents can do to ensure things go smoothly wherever you eat. Here are chef Isterling’s top tips - as both a restaurant professional and a father - on how to make eating out with kids an enjoyable experience for everyone…
Read more: ‘How to ensure your child eats healthily’
Timing, timing, timing
As most parents know, timing is everything when it comes to children. Eating out minutes before your child’s usual bedtime is bound to end in disaster, just as making a hungry little tummy wait for half an hour is doomed to end in tears. As well as ensuring you time your meal out in a way that works for your little one’s nap schedule, chef Isterling suggests explicitly asking the restaurant staff to consider your children first, as it’s not necessarily a given. “Ask the waiter to prioritise the kids’ meals so they get their food as soon as possible,” he says. “By the time the parents’ food is served, the kids should be almost done, which hopefully means the grown-ups can enjoy their meal in relative peace.”
It’s also a good idea to have some easy snacks on hand, just in case the restaurant kitchen is backed up and your food takes longer than you might hope – dry foods like crackers or raisins are perfect for keeping in your bag, won’t spoil easily, and will keep baby belly-growls at bay.
Read more: ‘6 Dubai restaurants where kids eat free’
You can’t always rely on eateries to have colouring books and pencils to hand, so come prepared with your own artillery of kid-friendly activities. While colouring is an easy one, a bag with a few of their favourite toys always goes down well, and chef Isterling also recommends that you don’t shun the idea of the right kind of screen occasionally: “When necessary, an iPad filled with educational games and tutorials will not only entertain them but also will expand their knowledge while you’re waiting to be served,” he says.
Engage as a family
Eating out is the ideal opportunity to connect together as a family, and is scientifically proven to have a host of mental and physical benefits for your developing child. Positive engagement with parents is key to improving a child’s social skills and wellbeing, as well as the secret to promoting good behaviour, so while you’re sat at the restaurant table, make sure you’re interacting with your little one, rather than looking at your phone. “During the meal, keep the conversation flowing between parents and kids on topics that are entertaining and fun for the kids,” says chef Isterling.
Start at home
The foundation for all behaviour starts at home, and children are likely to role model the example you give them. Good manners and appropriate behaviour in public are a practiced habit, and something that – surprisingly – children actually begin to learn from birth. Chef Sterling adds: “As parents we educate our kids on how to behave at home and especially in public: from the simple ‘Hi’, to saying ‘thank you’, to sitting, speaking and eating properly.”
Read more: ‘Top tips for dining out with kids’