Exhausted While Dining

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,
Our 2 year old son has been dining out with us since he was very small. He usually devours his food and is well behaved for a certain amount of time, at which point my husband will take him out for a stroll while I finish my food and wine (I am a slow eater). We have a rhythm and tend to go to the same places. It’s always pleasant and we look forward to these meals together. People comment on how adapted he is to restaurants and I attribute it to this ritual.
Recently, we invited some friends with a child the same age to dine with us and my husband and I both found it exhausting. This family is much less used to dining out with their child, and though there were no disasters, our son seemed confused at the presence of another family at our dinner and the constant trying to keep them both calm and entertained kind of ruined it for us.
Of course, at the end of the meal, the couple said they had so much fun (probably because they never go out) that they want to do it again. I’d like our kids to play together more, but my husband and I won’t be ready to attempt another dinner like that for a year, it was that tiring. How do I suggest a get together, but avoid the dining issue?
Exhausted While Dining
Dear Exhausted While Dining,
First off, kudos for teaching your kid how to eat out while not forcing the rest of us to suffer. Plenty of Midwesterners would say a restaurant is no place for children, and that may have at one time been true, but it’s not realistic for most families anyway. I’m all for taking kids to casual restaurants as long as they are actively being taught how to behave and one of the parents removes them the second they start acting in a way that distracts fellow diners.
My sister-in-law likes to recount the time she and my brother were eating with my non-Midwestern husband, me, and our son who was two at the time. Our son was starting to fidget a bit or lie down on the banquette or something when my husband said, “Why can’t you just sit and act like a grown-up?” Our standards were, perhaps, a bit high. I still maintain, however, that it is sensible to expect children to follow the rules, not a modified version of the rules, but the rules. It is extremely Midwestern of me, for sure.
All that said, I can think of nothing less relaxing than dining out with another family and their kid(s). Even if all the kids are at the same we’re-cool-at-restaurants stage and comport themselves appropriately, it’s just not much fun for them. Kids like to play together, not sit and chat, so eating at a restaurant isn’t the same social activity for them that it is for most adults. This holds true even as kids get quite a bit older. It also holds true for kids who otherwise like eating in restaurants.
So how do you get-together and avoid another restaurant outing? Invite them over instead. If they suggest a restaurant, simply say that you find that your kid does better at restaurants when it’s just your family and you want the kids to have a chance to play, not just sit at a table. All true. Don’t want to cook? Order a pizza. Keep it simple, get the kids fed, then let them play. Before you know it they’ll be running off to play by themselves and you’ll find yourself with entire evenings to sit around the table and enjoy adult conversation.

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