I have a 3-year-old, and we’re trying to get her used to eating out in restaurants. Fortunately, she’s usually quiet and spends most of the time playing with a book or toy. She’s not disruptive, except that she makes a mess when she eats. Even when I’m helping her, crumbs and bits of food end up on the floor and I feel bad for whoever who has to clean it up after we leave. We only take her to the most kid-friendly restaurants like Applebee’s and pizza places, but I still feel guilty. Is there anything I can do? Should I keep her home until she stops dropping food everywhere?
Dear Guilty Mess,
Well, you’re doing step one right: There are definitely some restaurants that are more welcoming of little kids—they’re the ones with the high-chairs and coloring books and industrial-strength vacuums. I guess some parents want to take their toddlers with them to nicer places, but that just seems stressful for everyone involved.
If you’re at a kid-friendly place, the staff should be used to toddler behavior and they’ve probably dealt with way worse than spilled food. Once, I watched a small kid throw up all over the table. (Thankfully, they weren’t seated in my section.) These things happen.
You don’t need to feel guilty about normal toddler antics, but there are some small things you could do that would help the staff out. First order of business: Don’t put stuff that’s just going to create messes—like salt packets or a handful of straws or the ketchup bottle—within kid reach. That’s just asking for trouble. Oh, and have you seen these disposable sticky placemat things? I saw parents whip these out for their two kids one time and thought they were geniuses. At the end of the meal, you can just crumple the placemat up and throw the mess away.
That doesn’t really help with the food that gets launched over the side of the high-chair though. In that case, I’d say that if you really wanted to, you could pick up any bigger bits—a whole chicken nugget, half a grilled cheese—with a paper napkin, but then just leave the rest for the staff. They’re going to clean up after you anyway, so you don’t have to try to get every crumb.
As long as you do your best to contain the food mess and then leave a nice tip, you’re totally fine. A couple extra bucks’ gratuity would be welcome, I’m sure, but you don’t have to do anything crazy like offer to vacuum yourself (I had a table ask this) or climb under the table to clean up. It’s good to get kids used to eating at restaurants, and as long as you’re bringing them to places with kids’ menus and high-traffic carpeting, you’re fine.
Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or are you a server/bartender with a horror story the world needs to hear? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.