Let me set the scene for you: returning to Chicago on a 2.5 hour car drive from Michigan, my husband and I realize we’ll be passing right through downtown. The four year old and five month old have just woken up. The baby is restless. It’s a lovely day, so we decide to have a little afternoon adventure on the river walk. We park in a garage, grab the stroller and always-packed diaper bag, and head to a restaurant. It’s a bustling Friday afternoon in the city, so there’s a short wait for a table. I skulk into a dimly lit corner to nurse the angry elf baby while my husband distracts the four year old with the boats passing on the river. We are then ushered to a table. They only have high tops available. They don’t have any high chairs or slings of any kind. They don’t have a kids menu. There are no other children in the restaurant.
This may sound like the perfect backdrop for a parental horror story, filled with tantrums and diaper explosions around every corner. But for us, this is pretty much par for the course. You see, long ago my husband and I decided that even if having children meant trading bar hops for puppet shows, we would at least attempt to fit our children into the lifestyle we had before them. That means we take our kids to a lot of places that don’t cater to families. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not hauling these people to the $100 a plate gastrique-and-whiskey-pairing kinds of places; we’re just inviting them into the world we enjoy. A world that usually involves overpriced cocktails and hipster brunches.
So how does one wrangle two little id-centric minions, turning them into tiny people you can bring out in civilized society? Well, after a lot of trial and error, we’ve developed a set of rules over the past 4 years that make for a successful outing with children in places that don’t have slides, ice cream, or wide open spaces.
- Bring snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Also emergency snacks. My four year old thrives largely due to chicken nuggets, granola bars, and air, so even if we can find a kids menu, chances are high he won’t eat anything on it. To keep his hunger at bay, I carry nine thousand shelf-stable snacks that I know he’ll eat (think granola bars, apple sauce pouches, nuts, and M&Ms in case of emergency whining). Plus getting a snack one-by-one helps to stretch out his “mealtime”, giving us more time to peruse the wine list. Now, you’ll need to reckon with a balanced feast not being the highest priority here, but it’s one meal. The kid’ll live.
- Pack the diaper bag smartly. You know that phrase, “Prepare as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow?” My diaper bag lives by that advice. When we go out as a family of 4, we try to stick to just one bag. You definitely need the basics on hand and the “just in case” items, but you’ve got to fit everything in without the bag exploding at the seams, so you need to make judicial decisions about what can stay home. Here’s what you’ll find in my diaper bag at any given time:
- Honest Company diaper bag back back (also comes in gray)
- water bottle: I particularly like S’well because it stays cold for 24 hours. As a nursing mom, you can’t forget to hydrate!
- wet/dry bag with extra clothes, bibs, and burp cloths. I like these from Bebe au Lait and Skip Hop. I put each extra outfit into a Ziploc sandwich bag so that if there’s a rogue poop situation, I can quickly deescalate the contamination.
- pacifier platoon: extra pacis (I like these from Mam), paci clip, and paci wipes (Dapple makes my fave)
- toys for baby and toddler: Sophie the Giraffe (in a Ziploc so she stays clean), Water Wow, and Melissa & Doug crayons
- baby carrier: Baby K’Tan is the best for squeezing into a tightly packed diaper bag, but my favorite one for sturdiness is Infantino
- muslin blanket: These are great because they can be used in multiple ways: as a nursing cover, as a blanket if it’s cold, as a burp cloth, as a barrier if I’m somewhere where the baby can be on the floor.
- diapers and wipes: Skip Hop makes the best carrying case to house both
- hand sanitizer: I prefer Babyganics because the foam prevents my son from dripping everywhere
- sun gear: baby sunscreen and sun hat
- Know your kids’ downfalls and prepare accordingly. My paradoxical baby loves her stroller in motion, but not when it’s stationary for longer than five minutes, so chances are, she’s going to fuss about until I get her out of that contraption. Knowing this, every time we go to a restaurant with our kids, I order something I know I can eat with one hand, like a salad or pasta. That way, it’s easy for me to scoop her up and still enjoy my meal. Some parents go by the “taking turns” method of dining out, but we don’t love this because inevitably one person inhales the meal out of guilt and the other has to eat a cold entree. Mama wants to actually taste her $25 scallop.
- Timing matters. This kind of goes along with #3 because you have to know your kids. My kids are crankier at night, so we try fun restaurants for lunch. My son tends to crash in the late afternoon, so if we want to go to a neighborhood fest, we go right when it opens in the morning. Capitalize on the times your kids are in the best moods-or after naptime-so that you set yourself up for better attitudes about things like waiting and sitting.
- Incentify the toys. You’ve got to entertain the kids, no question about it. All toys need to fit certain criteria to make it into our diaper bag: they need to be quiet, they need to be easily contained, and they need to be reusable. We have certain toys that stay in the diaper bag, so our son knows that he gets to play with them only when we’re out in public, which makes them somehow more special. Our hands-down favorite toy for this job is the Water Wow coloring book because he can use it over and over. For restaurants with paper covers on the tables, we love triangularly shaped crayons because they can’t roll off the table. And for the kids who love to stack, we’re big fans of these magnetic blocks. They’re pricey and take up a bit of realty in the diaper bag, but they keep this guy entertained for 45 straight minutes.
- Include one kid-friendly activity in the outing. If we go to a restaurant, whether it’s for lunch or dinner, we always give my son one thing to look forward to that’s just for him. Some may call this bribery, but I call it good sense. Besides, bribery is pretty much the cornerstone of parenting. No kid looks forward to sitting in a chair and playing quietly for an hour. But if he knows that a water taxi ride or a park or a trip to Dunkin Donuts comes with the territory, he becomes much more agreeable.
- Drive to your destination. If there is a stage 5 meltdown happening, you’re going to need to make a quick exit, and you do not want to be at the mercy of public transportation or a long walk, which are both fraught with opportunities for a child to further lose his shit. You need to be able to lock your screaming maniac in an enclosed space to contain the sound-lava pouring from his face hole, lest you be chased out of the adult space with fiery torches of judgement.
- You need to be ok with people looking at you. When you go to the zoo, no one looks at you because they’re all too busy making sure their own kids don’t dive headfirst into the bear pit. But when you go places that don’t have many children, you’re going to get stared at. You just are, so be ok with it. Adults dining without children have the leisure to turn their head any direction they want to and to hold their gaze fixed on something for as long as they want to. So you, with your little people in tow, are now a show for the childless patrons. Don’t worry whether they’re judging your brood; they’re not. Kids are cute and people like to look at kids. Maybe there’s a child talent scout out there preparing to offer your little cherub a contract–hello, college tuition!–or maybe your kids are reminding them of their own at home. And if they are judging you, who cares? You’ll never see them again.
- Do not plan ahead; keep it spontaneous. This sounds really scary, but you need to follow it for self-preservation’s sake. If you plan ahead, the trip will ultimately fail. Your children will sense your excitement and will instantly derail, leaving you angry and resentful. You need to approach these outings as an adventure for everyone. The most successful public trips we’ve had have happened when we woke up and said, hey, what should we do today? If you approach each of these outings as an experiment and not a plan, your day won’t be ruined if things go south, and you’re more likely to try the experiment again on another day.
- Be prepared to scrap the whole plan if a quick getaway is needed. Sometimes, it’s not going to work, the stars won’t align. Kids are kids. They’ll have meltdowns. Be ready to throw down a credit card and high-tail it out of there faster than your kid can whine, “iPad.”