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Operation Dinner Out

I recently read a story in one of my wife’s magazines that predicted by the end of the next decade, the kitchen could go the way of the cassette tape. I have my doubts on that. After all, where would everyone in the house congregate on holidays or football parties? Still, the kitchen had better watch its back. Eating out has become contagious.

As a father of two, eating out presents unique challenges. Plenty of parents of really little ones—the ones who are still in carriers and/or diapers—often opt to eat at the friendly confines of their own homes for the first few years. What a bunch of babies. Diaper dandies didn’t stop us from dining out. In fact, the first six months is actually the easiest, since you can time your dining out around nap times. Sure, you’ve got to eat dinner sometimes at 4:45pm with the old folks walker brigade, but new parents have to take what they can get.

At 6 and 11 years old, my kids are pretty easy to take out to eat. By now they’ve received an in-person education on how to wait a table (and how not to), which I hope serves them well when they’re paying for their own wheels in high school, sweating for tips.

Still, we rarely take them to places that aren’t kid friendly. What’s kid friendly in my world? For one, I love places that offer crayons and creative coloring sheets. By creative, I’m not talking about a couple of games of tic-tac-toe and a word search that a monkey could fill out. I’m talking about good coloring pages/books and challenging word searches. Maybe even a crossword puzzle or some cool connect-the-dots. The best, however, is just a blank slate. That’s why restaurants such as Macaroni Grill get us through the door. Sure, they’ve got great, affordable cuisine, but they also have a tablecloth that our kids can doodle on for an hour. They get bread to the table early and often, which is a must for hungry kids (not to mention parents).

The kids menu also is crucial in our selection. Any restaurant can print a kids menu. But when a restaurant treats it like an afterthought, it shows and doesn’t usually earn our return business. Kids don’t live on chicken nuggets alone. Some kids really like carrots and salads. Having milk as an option is always a welcome sight (thanks, Corner Bakery). Be careful not to overcharge us for pitiful small portions either. I realize you’re trying to make a profit, but moms and dads know when we’re being ripped off (I won’t mention any names here, but I might Tweet about it in the coming days/weeks/months).

Playgrounds and free ice cream seem like no-brainers for lassoing little buckaroos. But not so fast—playgrounds are often germ fests and can quickly become more crowded than a Manhattan subway platform. Free ice cream rocks, but it’s important that the staff keeps things neat and clean. If not, it can become a bigger mess than a Dallas Cowboys draft board. Rosa’s has neither a playground nor ice cream, but its tortilla machine is always a little kid favorite. The koi pond inside Cozymel’s in Grapevine also is fun. And, yes, McDonald’s toys are the landslide winner when it comes to gifts with purchase.

Dining outside the home is often given a negative name despite the fact that more Americans than ever are doing it. We actually do dine at home more often than not—especially Sunday nights, and we do a solid job (I give us a B-) for watching what we eat. But with our lives getting nothing but busier, dining options becoming better and the fact that I just plain like the buzz of a good restaurant experience, dining out is here to stay.