If you have never shared regular meals with a toddler, imagine The Hurt Locker taking place in a cafeteria. Everyone is on edge knowing that the slightest misstep will result in flying shrapnel. Most of your meal is spent utilizing your peripheral vision to monitor the child’s progress because direct eye-contact could have disastrous consequences. If they are actually eating well and they catch what they interpret as a look of approval, an immediate hunger strike will be implemented. If they are not eating well, they will use the opportunity to request a different entrée that you just ran out of.
When presented with a new delicacy, my son will visually inspect the item for several seconds before giving it a tentative lick. If the food in question is found to be worthy, a nibble is attempted. Then perhaps, he will take a full bite. At any point during this process, he may issue a full abort. This entails immediate expulsion from his mouth followed by cleansing his tongue with a napkin.
For months I told myself that my son was not picky, he simply had a discerning palate. While some might view his culinary methodology as excessive or even neurotic, I was convinced the behavior was simply the result of his practicality and lack of compulsion. Sure it can be annoying, but at least he contemplates what he ingests unlike some of these unwashed Philistines.
This theory was invalidated several weeks ago while on an afternoon walk. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, he picked up a rusted bolt from the crosswalk and popped it into his mouth. I had once watched this child agonize for three minutes over whether or not to eat an organic grape and now he was in danger of choking on a metallic shard he found in a water puddle. I have since realized that the only sure way to keep your child from ingested dangerous items is to present them as food. I am fairly certain that we could forgo the child-safety locks in our home as long as we place the cleaning products on a plate and ask him to give them a try.
While in-home dinning can be challenging, there is nothing quite like the thrill of eating out. When you will be breaking bread with someone in their terrible twos, the first item of business is to case the restaurant. Where are the exits? Are the tables decorated with breakable items? Is there an open booth next to an HVAC closet we could request?
Once your location is scouted, the ordering process must begin in haste. Parents of toddlers do not have the luxury of perusing the menu for twenty minutes, so when the server shows up to get the drink order they better come to play. Our order varies some depending on the venue, but here is the template:
“He will have the kid’s (insert cheese-based entrée here) with a side of (something he loves at home but will not eat in public) and the flimsiest plastic child’s cup you can locate. And can you bring us a case of napkins and a box crayons that he can throw on the floor?
The away game is the worst because you know the other patrons are observing you with the same peripheral vision trick you use on your toddler. When the meal goes sideways, I always imagine that our fellow dinners are discussing our obvious parenting missteps. They smile at each other and pretend to be oblivious to the fact that the high-chair next to them has transformed into a grilled-cheese catapulting apparatus.
The exception to this are other toddler parents because the only thing better than your child being the best behaved in the restaurant is your child being dethroned as the worst behaved in a restaurant. This is known as the “not my kid” lottery. This changes your whole demeanor as a parent. Instead of avoiding eye contact, you start wearing a smug grin that says, “My kid doesn’t seem so ill-mannered now does he?” Cocky parents might even cast their own disapproving look toward the misbehaving munchkin. But beware, every two-year old will play that role sooner or later.
Once, my wife and I were at a Mexican restaurant with our son when he decided to mount an insurrection. There was screaming, crying, and we nearly lost my wife’s iPhone to re fried bean submersion. I actually chased down the waiter for the check and was standing in line to pay while my wife was back at the table packing up the family. It just so happened that an acquaintance had been dinning at the same restaurant and was in line behind me. We chatted and moment and I mentioned something about being ready to pay and hit the road. She replied, “Tell me about it, I could hardly hear myself think with that kid screaming. Did you hear him?”I admitted that it had been even louder where I was sitting and that my wife and I could barely talk.