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Meals for Minors

Tips on dining out with the young and the restless

by and

You’ve saved up for months for that special-occasion dinner at Café Fancy Schmancy. Things are going swimmingly when you arrive, dressed to the nines, and are shown to a table with a thick white cloth and a chilled bottle of Champagne.

Ten minutes later, the hostess seats Mr. and Mrs. Frazzled and their tantrum-throwing 2-year-old right next to you. The din drowns out the sweet nothings your date is whispering, and an errant blob of airborne mashed potato lands on your dress.

Or ... maybe the couple pulls out some crayons and a snack, and things turn out just fine.

Whether kids belong in nice restaurants is a subject of heated debate. On the Chowhound and eGullet forums, hundreds of posters have chimed in. Some say well-behaved children should be welcomed at five-star spots, noting that they’re preferable to obnoxiously drunk adults. Others say prepubescents and their parents should be relegated to the likes of McDonald’s and Friendly’s.

We conducted an informal poll of area parents — plus University of Vermont alum and Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian — and found a higher level of consensus. Most of our interviewees believe youngsters deserve the chance to try out restaurants that don’t offer Happy Meals, but nobody argues they should be ordering tasting menus at Vermont’s finest eateries. And every single respondent notes that parents have a responsibility to their fellow diners.

Being a parent doesn’t make you immune to annoyance when someone else’s kid interrupts your evening. “I don’t want to be sitting next to families if I’m not with my family,” admits Burlington attorney and mom-of-one Jessica Oski.

D’Arabian, who has four young daughters, echoes her sentiment: “The worst thing is paying for a babysitter so I can have a nice night out with my husband — and having to listen to somebody else’s kids.”

So, why take the SpongeBob set out to eat in the first place? For one thing, they’ll never learn proper manners if they don’t practice. “It’s a training program,” says Mirabelles co-owner Alison Lane, who has two young boys. “They have to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and learn how to order.”

D’Arabian sets her little ones up for success by having a family huddle before they head out. “We let them know they’re going to an adult restaurant, that it’s a special occasion, and they have to act like young ladies,” she says. “I believe everybody has to know what the rules are before they can be expected to follow them.”

UVM psychology professor Rex Forehand, author of a book called Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, says parents who take their children out to eat — or to the movies or the grocery store — must stay “child focused.” “It really requires a conscious decision,” he says. The youngster, not the cabernet or the perfectly seared sea scallop on your plate, is where your attention should be. “If parents are willing to spend the time and effort to work with their children in fine restaurants,” says Forehand, “then it’s perfectly acceptable.”

To lessen the impact on other eaters, most parents quickly learn that early dinners are a boon. The d’Arabian family sometimes eats as early as 4:30 p.m. to beat the dinner rush and the date-night crowd. When parents become aware that their kids are an anomaly in a roomful of gourmands, Lane says, things can get stressful and rushed. “You’re worried about all the other people, and you’re downing your wine like it’s shots,” she jokes.

Establishments that are naturally bustling and noisy — think American Flatbread and the new Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington — can be great places to introduce kids to public dining and a variety of new foods without making a scene. A spot that pairs a dining room with a more casual tavern, such as The Bearded Frog in Shelburne, can be a good choice, too.

Want to know if a restaurant welcomes children? Call ahead and ask — you may be surprised. At Burlington’s L’Amante, one of the city’s finest eateries, children are accommodated with high chairs and smaller portions of “kids’ pasta” for $7. More adventurous eaters may share their parents’ entrées or order an appetizer-sized portion of penne Bolognese, which co-owner Kathi Cleary likens to pasta with “crushed-up meatballs.”

“A lot of our regular customers have gotten engaged here, have gotten married and had children,” Cleary notes. “[Bringing the whole family] has always been fine.” Her view is that the parents are often more stressed out by the scenario than their fellow diners.

One cardinal — and counterintuitive — rule: Kids should never show up at a restaurant hungry. Food writer and UVM communications specialist Lee Ann Cox, who has a 9- and a 6-year-old, notes, “If they’re really starving, their idea of a long wait can be measured in seconds.” Like Cox, d’Arabian always offers a snack beforehand, and brings another one along just in case.

Most of these parents agree that even nonpicky kids should be exposed to new foods at home rather than in restaurants. “Do I get them the halibut poached in olive oil served on braised Swiss chard?” d’Arabian asks. “No. That’s 30 bucks out of my pocket for nothing. It’s not the time for them to learn to like crazy things.” For frugality’s sake, Oski agrees, “I’m not inclined to order something for [my 6-year-old] unless I’m sure she’s going to eat it.”

Lane does things a bit differently with her sons, whom she calls “pretty good eaters.” At Sonoma Station in Richmond, one of her family’s favorites, she’ll narrow the menu down to a couple of options, such as quesadillas or peanut noodles with beef. “Too much choice is not a good thing,” she suggests. “We’ll say, ‘There’s this or this,’ and they’re usually fine with whatever.” A good mac ’n’ cheese or a burger with hand-cut fries generally makes it onto the list.

Sometimes even restaurants that offer special options for children get a bit too fancy. “I think sometimes [eateries] think they have kids’ options, but they feel the need to embellish them in some way that kids don’t want,” Cox says. “In my experience, going to a restaurant isn’t fun for anybody if the children don’t enjoy the food.” In short: Chefs, leave the fried capers and the dusting of smoked paprika for the grown-ups.

What should restaurants do to be more kid friendly? Susan Holson, copublisher of Kids VT, has some ideas. Children’s meals should be delivered a few minutes early, to give parents a chance to cut up meat and make sure items aren’t too hot, but not so early that the kids are sated and restless before their parents can fork up a bite.

Coloring books and trivia cards make things fun for families, and keeping nutrition a priority — by automatically offering sides of apple sauce or broccoli instead of French fries, for example — will earn an eatery a gold star. But the main thing Holson looks for is flexibility. “If the kid wants butter on the spaghetti and it only comes with red sauce, that’s going to be a problem,” she notes. “Most children are picky.”

Needless to say, there will be occasions when even the best-behaved youngsters are pushed beyond their limits. That’s when coloring books, toys and understanding restaurant staffers are extra important.

For times like those, d’Arabian has what she calls a “go-to emergency strategy that I can use at almost any restaurant, anywhere.” What’s the secret? Ice cream. “If they’re flipping, if there are meltdowns, I’ll say, ‘Can you bring them each a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the check?’” she says. “That buys me 10 minutes, maybe 20.”