David McMillain

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you that restaurants are a lot like movies: some of ’em are made for kids, others just aren’t. Nobody would drag their toddler to the cinema to watch a sprawling, three-hour historical epic, because toddlers aren’t built to endure them. But take them to Moana or Coco and they’ll sit in rapt silence.

Similarly, some restaurants are built for infants and children to endure, while others are decidedly not. And since I know so many couples who’ve so recently given birth to brand new baby squishes, I, a childless forty-something, set out to ask them a series of questions like, “What are you looking for when you go out to eat?” “What do you wish restaurants would do to better accommodate your kids?” and “Do you have any hard parenting rules you’ll stick to so you won’t become those parents?” Because, let’s face it, those parents do indeed exist.

The goal is, of course, to give restaurateurs, servers, and parents something to chew on when it comes to serving kids, who, let’s again face it, can sometimes be loud, and oftentimes pretty messy.

Here’s what they had to say (along with a few tips from me).

Parents, Do Your Research; Restaurants, At least Have Crayons

One couple said they won’t even bother with restaurants if they lack space for strollers, changing stations, crayons, dedicated spaces where it’s okay for kids to run themselves docile after eating, or servers who don’t have the foresight to pour a kid’s water into a plastic glass with a straw and lid instead of an adult glass. They’re not mad about it, because some restaurants are The Godfather and others are Frozen, but if restaurants can’t check off at least some of these boxes, they vote with their dollar at the spots that do.

Restaurants, Offer Healthier Food Options

Most kids aren’t adventurous eaters. I didn’t become one until I left the Midwest at age 30. But one new dad says he’d like to see more vegetarian kids’ options besides mac and cheese, buttered noodles, or grilled cheese. Offering a quality veggie burger couldn’t hurt, or even something more extravagant, like eggplant parmesan. “Kids want to eat good food, too,” he said.

Parents, Know When to Say When

One couple offered this nugget of new parenting advice and, as a former server, I couldn’t agree more: Show up to eat at 5 pm. While technically it’s the start of dinnertime, restaurants are often dead at 5, and if the kid starts to fuss, parents can get in and out quickly with little damage. It’s easier on the server, who’s less busy, as well as the other customers, who won’t have to endure happy hour with a toddler in meltdown mode. An added tip: Parents, don’t take babies or small children to “date spots” during “dating time.” It’s okay to hit up, say, Biwa at 5 pm on a Wednesday, but dropping by at 7 pm on Friday night isn’t cool.

Servers, Expect Clean Up

There are people who have patience with kids and those who don’t. If you’re gonna be a server, you better be the kind who does, because a lot of kids are gonna cross your path. They can be unpredictable; they never tip and will make a mess. But kids are easy to charm, and when you charm a kid, you’re charming the parents, too. Parents will remember that when tipping you, and they’ll come back. All for the small act of showing kindness and recognizing people as people.

Servers, Outside Food is Okay

Technically, this is never true—but if a parent brings in carrot sticks or cheese and crackers for their kid, just look the other way. It’s never worth the fight.

Everybody, Public Breastfeeding Is Okay

Babies have to eat too, and no, mothers shouldn’t have to “cover up” while doing it. If breastfeeding in public bothers you, maybe you should explore where that shame comes from?

Parents, Changing Diapers in the Dining Room Is Not Okay

Just follow the “don’t shit where you eat” rule and wait for the restroom to free up. (Yes, this happens.)

When you get down to it, servers, restaurants, and parents should ideally be allies. Dining out with kids can be stressful, but for parents and servers, it’s also an excellent opportunity to help shape a kid’s palate and table manners. It may be corny to say, but it really does take a village. Some of those kids will grow up to be servers, and all of them will grow into restaurant-going adults—so let’s have patience and help them get there.