Before we had kids, eating out was our "thing". Never really big drinkers/partiers or movie or concert goers, we spent the bulk of our disposable income and weekend time traveling and testing out all the top new restaurants in town, both at home and on the road.
I enjoyed eating out so much that as we eagerly anticipated the birth of Baby #1, I actually spent a good deal of time fretting about how we would be resigned to a depressing life of dining at home, consuming whatever shoddy, inedible, kid-friendly foods I might be able to throw together. So when we tentatively ventured out of the house to take Baby to a restaurant for the first time when he was about a week old, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as he slept through the entire (well-timed, post-feeding) meal. Maybe our lives wouldn't change THAT much....
Enter Baby #2, 17 months later. Like Pavlov's dogs, it only took us a few hugely failed restaurant experiences to realize that our habits had to change. And that we would never be eating out again. My husband flatly refused to do it, stating up front that he was not willing to spend the money to eat out with the kids - not only was it not enjoyable, it was downright stressful. Ever the restaurant enthusiast, even though my standards had significantly lowered to kid-friendly fast food and pizza joints, I would occasionally venture out at lunch time with a support group of other moms. Still, the meal almost always ended with me drenched in sweat, my Bunch drenched in tears, and my food ensconced in a to-go box, virtually untouched.
I was always jealous of other mommy friends whose children seemed to behave decently enough in restaurants and wondered what the hell I was doing wrong. Then I realized that not one of them were Baby Bunchers. Not to use that as an excuse for ill-behaved children, but when your children are spaced further apart, you have the luxury of spending several years solely focusing on drilling into one child how to properly behave at a restaurant. When you are a Baby Buncher, it is difficult to rescue the child climbing out of the high chair when you are likely nursing the other in a sling to keep him quiet so you can get through the meal. If only Octo-Mom meant having that many arms instead of that many children.
So don't despair if your Bunch act like wild heathens in a restaurant or if you think you will never enjoy a meal you haven't cooked yourself for the next 18 years. Like all things Baby Bunching, it does get a little easier as they get older. In the meantime, choose your dining experiences carefully. Criteria I've come to consider in a restaurant include:
Cost. There's no sense sinking a ton of money into a meal that you will likely be eating out of a styrofoam container 2 hours after it is served. Stick to fast food and family-friendly joints and save the true gastronomical experiences for date night.
Ambiance. In addition to your own investment, consider that of other diners. Really, other people do not think your kids are as cute as you do. So if you think they are acting like buggers, imagine how other people feel. Stick to casual, loud, hole-in-the-wall type joints where the atmosphere is more laid back.
Layout. Do they have family-size booths next to a wall, which allow you to stick a highchair on one end of the table and trap your toddler(s) in the booth by bookending them between the wall and a parent? Also, always ask to be seated away from other diners if possible and if the restaurant isn't crowded.
Timing. Speaking of which, you should never be in a crowded restaurant with your Bunch - it's a recipe for disaster. Go at lunch time or eat at 5 on weekend nights so you can be in and out before the rush starts. If your Bunch can't sit through a meal, they're not gonna wait 45 minutes for a table.
Entertainment. Does the restaurant have paper and crayons? Or a little game like the Cracker Barrel golf tee game? Indoor playgrounds are awesome, restaurants with outdoor ones may be a little too old - you don't want your kids to get stampeded by big kids. It's a true bonus if you can score a place where you can be seated within vision line of a video game that is not near a door. As toddlers, my kids would "drive" race car games forever without me having to spend a single quarter. One place we went to had a giant sandbox on the patio. To this day, I can't figure out why all family-friendly restaurants don't have one.
Food. Steer clear of restaurants where there is not one thing your kid can or will consume. I guess you could bring your own, but it is already such a hassle to dine out, don't exacerbate it by making it an experience where you're having to Iron Chef it at the table. Bonus points if the place has cheap and good margaritas, which always make dining out with your Bunch an easier pill to swallow.
I also like to set expectations for my Bunch before we go in. Beginning when they were toddlers, we had 4 easy rules that we repeat as "The Rules of the Restaurant" to this day. They are:
No throwing food on the floor.
No licking tops of salt shakers.
Most families don't need #4 but my Bunch is awesome like that. And in case you're worried that you have dined after us, fear not - we have reported and dumped out every salt shaker we've ever licked.
If all else fails, as they get older you can leverage their fear of non-parental authority. My mom has my children deathly afraid that "the manager" of the restaurant will ask them to leave. In a pinch, anyone passing by your table can pass as the manager. My oldest child has a fear of uniformed officers, so we like to target restaurants where we know a few cops, firemen, or EMS guys will be hanging out - it does wonders for the children's table manners.