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Betsy Block

Here and There

Happy Meals

You know the scene. Everyone does. You're sitting in your favorite restaurant, tucking into a plate of gnocchi, when suddenly all conversation comes to a halt. All eyes turn to a table filled with two stressed-out adults and several kids poised at the brink of eruption -- the point at which family dinnertime is officially, and publicly, over.

While the kids may have decided that their virtually untouched, now-cold grilled cheese sandwiches are so 30 minutes ago, their poor parents haven't even touched their meals. Yet they defuse the situation the only way they know how: They wave down the waiter, ask for their meals to go, and start packing up. That's because they care about the public good. And damages.

Dining out with kids is a great idea -- in theory. It's a welcome break from the kitchen, and special-occasion dinners wouldn't be the same without kids along. (They'd be much better, obviously.) Unfortunately, it can also amount to nothing less than a military operation. First, there's the mission of finding a place where kids are welcome to act like kids and adults don't have to eat fried food with names inspired by jungle animals. Then there's the age-old, irrefutable fact that just because a kid ordered something doesn't mean she's actually going to eat it. The jelly is the wrong color. The bread is too soft. Or too hard. Or too brown. Or maybe today is simply a no-food day. Those crop up once in a while, too.

I happen to have "good eaters," which makes dining out a breeze. They'll try anything once -- and I mean anything. When our family had dim sum at China Pearl, my son loved the snails in black bean sauce (which he charmingly dubbed "little slugs"). And while Flora is definitely a grown-up restaurant, it's the place where my boy discovered the wonders of grilled sardines. He liked the skeleton so much he wanted to take it to school the next day, but it was really the tender flesh and smoky flavor that hooked him. (Sadly, we "forgot" the fish carcass at the restaurant.)

Of course, not all kids are good eaters. In fact, most aren't. My adorable five-year-old niece won't eat anything cooked -- including French fries. Where new foods are concerned, well, she won't even try a flavor of ice cream she's not familiar with. Yet there are ways to please a fussy eater and still be able to leave the house for more than just a Happy Meal. For instance, although my niece might not go for it, my son and his two picky pals like to share an order of fish and chips at the East Coast Grill; it's a parent-sanctioned fried-food feast. And you could always get a standard pie for the little ones and a gussied-up version for yourselves at Emma's or Real Pizza.

As for that whole behavior thing: I know many restaurants aren't thrilled (to say the least) when they see our little clan of four come through the door, but as ambassadors of family dining, behaving is our duty. When we get home and have two kids full enough to sleep through the night, no dishes in the sink and the clock reading "bedtime," we know we've found our slice of heaven on earth. Ready to give it a go? First, read these guidelines, culled from my own experiences and those of other parents, and from Cary Wheaton, co-owner with her sister Sarah of the ultimate family restaurant, Full Moon, in Cambridge (and the mother of a picky eater herself).

1. Hit the ground running. Both of my children had come out with us to dinner by the time they were two weeks old. The more often you take your children out, the more "teachable moments" you'll encounter. Use them wisely. And, speaking of teachable moments ...

2. Teach your children well: Don't expect the waitstaff to do the job for you -- they're busy. Wheaton tells of parents who will ask a server to instruct their kids not to throw sugar packets on the floor. Tell 'em yourself. Let the server concentrate on bringing you your food.

3. Bail out before you ruin other people's meals. If the baby starts to cry, walk him around -- outside. If it's raining, find an awning. If he won't stop, take the poor little guy home (and the rest of the meal to go).

4. When in doubt, ask. If your kids are starving and you're ready to whip out some rice cakes, consult your server. He'll probably be happy to bring you some bread, which is much less likely to get ground into powder in the rug. Wheaton tells the amazing but true story of a diner who brought his own chips, guacamole and salsa to a restaurant and told his kids to dig in. Never mind the liability issues (what if one of the kids choked on a chip?); it's wildly rude.

5. Take nothing away but free plastic cups; leave nothing but a big tip. Don't leave a mess on (or under) the table. Before you leave, take three minutes to undo the most egregious damage your children may have wrought.

6. Napkins, napkins, napkins. Always ask for extra. Great for spills, drawing, origami, and surreptitiously spitting out partially chewed food. Dispose of the latter in the bathroom; don't leave it for some hapless server to slop on himself. Oh, and you can remind your child to use one to wipe her mouth with, too.

7. Like the Boy Scouts, be prepared. Whether that means bringing your own sippy cup or keeping a supply of markers in your purse, make sure you always have the bare essentials ready to whip out.