My husband and I not only enjoy taking our daughter to restaurants, but we feel it’s essential. Early on, before I even became pregnant, we decided that any child of ours would be expected to fit into our lives, do the things we already loved doing. We would not stop going to restaurants or visiting with friends or traveling. She would join us while we continued doing these things, and she would be a citizen of the world, adept at social situations.
It has definitely worked out this way. She now has a cultured palate (her favorite meal is her grandpa’s Italian rigatoni with chicken and olives) and has no fear of ordering for herself.
But there’s one aspect to the experience of dining out with her that I have come to dread: It’s that part when we open the door and find the smiling young hostess greeting us with the following words: “Two and a half?”
I waited tables for most of my 20s, and early on, I had a manager (a father, obviously) who insisted that this was his pet peeve; now it is also mine: MY CHILD IS NOT HALF A PERSON.
Yes, at 6, she may be smaller than we are. But she needs a whole seat for her whole bottom, and she deserves as much attention as we do. I know the “half” thing is meant in an innocuous, jokey way. But it bugs me because it seems to imply an entire philosophy about children dining in restaurants that I (and most parents I know) are frustrated with. It implies that restaurant workers think my child is only worth half their attention and half their effort.
And trust me, in a lot of restaurants we visit, it shows.
Our experiences have run the gamut from being seated next to the kitchen, away from ALL other diners (presumably so that our daughter would not have an opportunity to taint anyone else’s experience with her occasional noises and mess); to suffering the indignity of changing her diaper on the floor of the restroom because there were no changing tables; to paying through the nose for her unhealthy, unappetizing meal, of which she ate about five bites; to being forced to place her in countless dirty, buckle-less, rickety high chairs, and many more indignities.
And what’s worse is that this has been the rule, not the exception. I’m willing to bet most of the parents reading this have experienced these situations on a regular basis as well. And we only have one child—I can’t imagine dealing with this for two or more kids.
One thing I’ve learned from contributing to the Reno Moms Blog is that the network of moms who share good and bad experiences is huge and valuable. And considering that nearly half of America’s food dollars are spent on dining out (according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest), it would behoove restaurants to do a better job of pleasing parents. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Revamp your menus. Our family just returned from a week’s vacation in Arizona, where we ate out at numerous restaurants, from a gourmet pizzeria to a brew pub and fast food. Of those establishments who had children’s items at all (which were all but one), all of their children’s menu items were identical. Quick, name them all…I bet you can.
Yeah, you guessed it. Chicken fingers and fries, spaghetti, pizza, grilled cheese and fries, or mac and cheese that is (shamelessly) straight out of a $1 Kraft box (is the $5 extra for cooking that?). A few also offered veggies and ranch or fruit cups, which we ordered when possible. All of these meals cost at least $6. All were way oversized for a 6-year-old (it would actually have been too much food for me), with a ridiculously huge mound of French fries distracting her from the tiny bits of protein and vitamins on the plate.
According to a 2013 report on kids’ meals by the CSPI, of the nearly 3,500 kids’ restaurant meals analyzed, 97% of them do not meet nutrition requirements for children specified by child development experts. In my opinion, that is obscene. Kids will eat what is given to them if it is offered early and often. If all they know is chicken fingers and fries, they will only want to eat that. Give us choices. How about half sizes of regular menu items? What about kid-sized salads? Why not provide healthy meals that are presented in fun, kid-friendly ways so that the presentation and not the fatty content is kid-like? What does it teach children when they are given menus that in no way resemble the rest of what is offered to adults?
And at least prepare kids’ meals in palatable ways. When my daughter was 2, she was presented with a grilled cheese sandwich that was so rubbery and greasy that even her unsophisticated palate wouldn’t touch it. They would never have served that to an adult. It’s like they think my kid is stupid enough to eat any old thing.
2. Fix those broken high chairs. I am so glad that my daughter is now old enough that this isn’t an issue, but for those early years, it was a constant pain. I think more times than not, the high chairs we were presented with at restaurants had broken safety straps, so that our little girl nearly fell out of countless slippery high chairs. I always see servers flipping high chairs upside down to rest infant car seats on them—a serious safety no-no that makes me shudder every time (seriously people, never, ever do this). And at the very least, those chairs were disgusting, coated with dozens of children’s gooey food and saliva and lord knows what else. And many restaurants didn’t have high chairs at all, or boosters, or only carried two or three, which weren’t maintained, so that if we were lucky enough to even get one, it was battered and disgusting. I’ve learned that restaurant safety laws make no provisions for high chairs, unfortunately, but in my opinion it would benefit their future business to take such a simple necessity as safe seating to heart.
3. Consider little fingers. A giant paper to-go cup is not a “kid cup” (though we have been sold “kid drinks” this way many times). We have also been given rocks glasses full to the brim of milk, containing a full-sized straw, when we’ve ordered a “kid’s milk.” I know that there is no law requiring restaurants to make any special accommodations for kids, but it would make life easier if restaurants could take small hands into consideration when ordering cups and utensils.
4. Keep and maintain diaper-changing tables. I’ll never forget the Sunday evening when my daughter was 18 months old, and we decided to visit a pizza restaurant at a Sparks mall for dinner. Upon finishing our meal, I needed to change her diaper and found that the restaurant’s bathrooms had no changing table. I thought I’d scope out the mall restrooms, but they were closed at this hour on a Sunday. Which meant I had to lie her down on the floor of a restaurant bathroom (next to a toilet, thanks to the tiny space) to change her. A pizza place, for crying out loud, with no changing table! I found this to be the case at many restaurants we visited when she was in diapers, and those that offered them often didn’t maintain them, that they they were missing buckles and were not clean.
And here’s another thing that really bugged us: Men’s restrooms contain them even less often. My husband, on the occasional trip without me, was left putting her on the floor of the men’s room, which to me seems even grosser. If you want us to be friends for life with your restaurant, offer clean, safe changing tables in the ladies’ AND men’s rooms.
Extra little things mean a lot. The basic health and safety of our kids obviously take precedence. But I’ve seen several area restaurants go above and beyond to accommodate kids, and because of that, I will always support them. They include:
• Black Rock Pizza in Sparks, which provided little cups of goldfish crackers to my daughter while she waited for her meal;
• Laughing Planet Café in Reno, which not only offers a little play area for kids and serves us healthy menu items for kids of all ages, but also puts a toy dinosaur on every table and sanitizes these toys several times daily;
• Chipotle, whose kid menu is affordable; contains locally produced, fresh, often organic items; and offers a taco kit as an option, so my daughter can create the taco she wants, with ingredients she likes;
• Blind Onion Pizza, which keeps games, crayons, chalk, and paper plates for coloring in at least one corner of each of its restaurant locations; my daughter loves drawing pictures and asking the servers to hang her drawings on their gallery wall of kids’ art (and they always will do it for her). We can sit and linger here for hours over our dinner and feel comfortable that she is entertained.
These are by no means exhaustive lists. I’m sure you parents out there have plenty of other restaurant pet peeves, just as you have preferred dining spots that you’ve felt have done a great job in serving your entire family. I’d love to hear about them, so please share them here.
As for you restaurant workers out there, if you remember nothing else from this post, please, please remember this: There are no half people.