Restaurant protocol on smuggling food in for kids
July 9, 2014 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Are restaurants okay with people smuggling in their own food for little kids? Do they see a difference between a zippy cup/handful of goldfish crackers and a full-on meal?

I was recently out with a group which included a small, picky child. The adults had some food issues and wanted to go to a sushi place so everyone could eat, but there is no way the small child would have eaten there. The grandparents wound up going to a coffee shop first, buying a grilled cheese sandwich for the child, and simply bringing it with them.

I admit, I was a little taken aback. I have seen people bring in things like goldfish crackers, cheerios etc. for babies, and even baby food jars. But this was a new one for me, and I am wondering how the people in the restaurant would have seen it. If it were up to me, I would have simply not chosen that restaurant and gone somewhere with more kid-friendly food. But when I thought about it afterward, I wondered if they really cared that much. Given that there is no chance they could have offered anything the child would have eaten, they did not lose any money. And they gained the paying meals of the five adults, who otherwise would have eaten elsewhere.

I should add that the child was well-behaved, not disruptive and stayed peacefully at the table the whole time. He picked at his contraband grilled cheese and played with some small toys which had been brought for him. Still, when the waiter cleared our table, there was the detritus of the Not Their Food kids meal. I wonder how the restaurant people typically feel about these things. Judging? Or grateful that the paying adults came?
posted by JoannaC to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the restaurant and the people who run it. Lots of kids like sushi, LOTS of kids. So perhaps they would have liked it if you had ordered some Miso for the little bugger, or a couple of ebi rolls. Or tempura.

Most restaurants will let it go, but in the back of the owner's mind he's judging you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:29 AM on July 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was recently out with a group which included a small, picky child.

It depends at least partly on the age of the child.

I'd say that with kids younger than two, it's definitely OK, with the exception of a) really fancy places (where kids arguably shouldn't be anyways) or b) places with dietary restrictions, e.g. Kosher restaurants, where outside food is strictly prohibited for that reason. Ben's Best Deli here in NYC specifically provides free baby food for infants because of their no outside food policy related to their kosher certification.

I'm thinking with a kid old enough and able to eat grilled cheese sandwiches could eat plain rice at least. They won't starve.
posted by Jahaza at 9:31 AM on July 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

I worked in a restaurant for a few years and will say, from my personal preference, I would rather the kid bring in a grilled cheese than have to figure out a million custom orders to make something off our menu work for the kid.

So long as there was no expectation for me to do anything with the kid beyond getting him/her drinks - it shouldn't be a problem (except for specific instances like cited above like kosher, etc). The only way i would see it as a problem if there was grilled cheese on the table cloth/floor/ or if i was asked in anyway to deal with the kid's food.

Personally - i agree that i wouldn't bring outside meal to a restaurant for a child - but this isn't the most egregious thing a family could do.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 9:36 AM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a picky 5.5 year old. Generally I wouldn't take him to a sushi place that I didn't know had something he'd eat. But actually I did that a few weeks ago and he ate rice.
I probably wouldn't grab a grilled cheese but maybe kid hadn't had a decent meal all day and this was really needed. Maybe the parents would have preferred a pizza place but one person really wanted sushi.
I am under the impression that waiters are a little annoyed and I try to not leave my kid's stuff not bought there for the waiter to clean up. But sometimes I do, and it isn't the worse thing I've ever done.
posted by k8t at 9:47 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always travel with food my kid will eat, but in a pinch I might consider doing what the grandparents did here. Out of consideration I probably would have not left the outside food for the restaurant staff to clean up though; presumably it came in a to-go bag. If possible I'd have bagged it up and taken it with me.
posted by JenMarie at 9:49 AM on July 9, 2014

We had an issue once with one of mine insisting on something not on the menu. We spoke to the waiter/manager. We offered to pay some sort of setup fee similar to a corkage fee if we could go next door and get the slice of pizza. He countered with, "I will be right back." He came back with a slice and said that the folks next door gave it to him as they often barter each other's food.

My point is that I would ask. Or at least offer some compensation. I would not simply ignore and see if the restaurant had the inclination to speak up.
posted by 724A at 9:50 AM on July 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think this sort of thing is usually ignored by restaurants if the child is small. However, it is strictly against health code. Outside food is not allowed for health reasons, not cause the restaurant is being jerky.
posted by agregoli at 10:53 AM on July 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

I used to be a server, and I wouldn't have thought it was rude. Maybe I would raise an eyebrow and think "strange!" but I feel that having children and feeding them, let alone in public, is enough of a production for me to have a little generosity of spirit toward parents. As to how it affects the restaurant's bottom line-- it seems that if parents can't find a place to take their kids, they end up going out less often, which isn't so great for restaurants either. If they had gone out without their kid-- same situation, financially.

I did work in one brewpubby restaurant where the owners only ordered two highchairs for kids and basically had the attitude of "why are you taking your kids to a damn brewpub," which I don't personally agree with, but you see how some people might judge.

On the other hand, either clean up your kid's mess or tip appropriately.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:54 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have a 16month old, and when we go to restaurants we'll try to feed him what we're having. If that doesn't work (for whatever reason) we've always got some backup food and snacks to give him. We've found restaurant employees very accommodating, and will occasionally bend over backwards to get our son fed. It probably helps that he's very cute and well behaved.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2014

I have small children. I also own a restaurant.

I have no problem with pre-packaged snacks like Cheerios or baby food for infants and toddlers because they don't eat a meal, anyway. We'll probably even give you such food ourselves. I have a problem with bringing in a meal for a child who can eat more than a few ounces at a time. Think of it this way: let's say it instead of a child, your party just had a really fussy adult picky eater. Would anyone be comfortable with that adult bringing a bag of McDonald's? I hope not.

You had the right idea, but it is too bad you didn't prevail. Your party made a mistake in going to a restaurant where not everyone could eat. If I were the owner/manager in your situation, like Ruthless Bunny said, I'd let it slide but I wouldn't be pleased. And, I'd let it slide the one time. If I saw the same people try this again, I'd have something to say to them about it. That's assuming a restaurant with no "kids food", by the way. Since my restaurant actually has a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu for children,* there is no way I would allow an outside grilled cheese sandwich (or any other meal) in the door. There is also a concern under my state's health code in allowing food prepared off-premises into the dining area as well. There is certainly a liability concern. Maybe your brought-in meal contains an allergen that triggers a reaction in a customer or employee, or maybe the food that gets brought in gets someone in your party sick - guess who gets sued?

So no, I am not "grateful" that paying adults came in this instance. There are conditions for eating in the restaurant, such as that you have to wear a shirt, that don't get waived just because you are paying. It is assuming that you will be paying as soon as you enter the restaurant because you don't come in unless you want to buy something to eat.

I do agree with 724A's advice of asking what accommodations can be made. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate you (within reason) but for this to happen, first you have to let us know that you need accommodation. This is definitely a situation where permission is better than forgiveness.

It is commonly said that if you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat in the restaurant. I would similarly say that if you can't eat in the restaurant, you can't go to the restaurant.

* amazingly, adults have complained that they cannot order from the kids menu. Sorry, but if you can grow a beard, you can't order from the kids menu.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:55 AM on July 9, 2014 [35 favorites]

As a restaurant patron, I suppose I would mind if the contraband food was particularly smelly. For example, if I were at a sushi place and the kid next to me was eating a slice of aromatic pizza, it would bother me. Same goes if I'm at a pizza place and the kid at the next booth is eating odoriffic sushi.

If it's just a pb&j, it would be no big deal to me. i probably wouldn't even notice.
posted by Elly Vortex at 11:03 AM on July 9, 2014

As a former server, this did not bother me unless your kid made a big mess and you didn't tip well. I think it would be good etiquette to tip extra if a server is cleaning up a mess from food you didn't order there.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:07 AM on July 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

We regularly go out with our super picky almost-4-year-old, and we have been known to pack a pb sandwich (he won't even eat jelly! or fluff!) if the place we go to doesn't have anything he'll eat. We tip very well and go at times when the restaurants aren't typically crowded, and I figure they are making more money off our adult food & drinks than they would if we stayed home. I wouldn't bring in food from another restaurant, though, that seems just beyond what I'd expect them to be cool with. I would absolutely bring him to a sushi place and give him a pb sandwich, because otherwise we'd never get to eat any interesting food ourselves!
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 11:14 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's one thing if the child has a food allergy or intolerance and cannot eat the restaurant food for health reasons (I still would say avoid the restaurant, but sometimes in large groups that isn't possible). But in the case you described, the child is simply "picky." Children eat sushi all the time; sushi restaurants often have tempura, rice, green salad, a whole variety of non-raw-fish items. This is a case of the parents being lazy. If the parents wanted to be able to eat at a variety of restaurants with their child, they should have put more time into developing the child's palate.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:35 PM on July 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

We have a special needs child (7 years old) with an extraordinarily limited diet. When we visit a restaurant with him, we ask the manager if we can bring his food in with us, after explaining why it is necessary. We really try to avoid this by not bringing him to places where they might mind. Sometimes we have to do it. No restaurant has ever made us feel bad about this; in fact once they understand the situation, they seem to make an effort to be extra accommodating.

We then leave a tip in line with what the bill would have been if our child had ordered off the menu, and we never leave the scraps of the food he ate. And the restaurant earns my deep gratitude for being understanding and welcoming.
posted by Kangaroo at 1:08 PM on July 9, 2014 [14 favorites]

If the parents wanted to be able to eat at a variety of restaurants with their child, they should have put more time into developing the child's palate.

This is nice to think, but so misguided.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:34 PM on July 9, 2014 [22 favorites]

I come from a big family full of picky kids, with parents who took us to all different types of restaurants serving all different types of food. I remember this happening maybe once or twice, at a restaurant that basically amounted to a seafood shack.

In places with actual menus that provide a lot of options for people with various tastes (e.g. basically any traditional dine-in restaurant), I would think this would be less acceptable.

I mean, does the kid not eat rice? Not eat noodles? Not eat just plain chicken? I could see if it was a hoity-toity traditional Japanese sushi bar that literally only serves authentic Japanese sushi and nothing else (in which case, is that really the place to take a small child?), but the vast majority of Japanese-American restaurants will have something a picky kid will eat.

When I was a kid and one of us whined about even something as simple as chicken and rice, or a quesadilla, or noodles with butter, the alternative provided by my parents was to not eat anything and have a sandwich later at home.
posted by Sara C. at 1:56 PM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're technically not allowed to bring your own food into a US restaurant and eat it there. Why? Because the owner is responsible for the food served in his restaurant. How does he know what's in that grilled cheese? If the kid gets sick, it's now the owner's fault. Didn't you see the Seinfeld where he tries to use his special maple syrup in the restaurant?
posted by Rash at 2:23 PM on July 9, 2014

I mean, does the kid not eat rice? Not eat noodles? Not eat just plain chicken?

Actually, yes, my kid won't eat those. He'll eat noodles if they are spaghetti with marinara or mac & cheese.

As for developing his palate, I have read books and blogs, tried modeling, offering, tricking, begging, bribing, punishing, making it fun/funny... nothing works. One thing I have learned being a parent is that I can control the choices I offer/make available, but I can't control what goes into and out of this child.

Parents are judged for how their kids behave in restaurants, but how are they supposed to learn from our example (and maybe learn from our example about eating foods that aren't beige) if we can't take them out to places we enjoy because now strangers are also judging our kids' palates? I feel like people's memories of childhood restaurant trips are also based on being older kids and being better able to sit and wait through a meal out of sheer stubbornness, but a three/four year old who is hungry and not eating at dinner time while we attempt to eat a meal and keep him well behaved for the sake of other diners? I just don't have what it takes to juggle all that and keep the small shreds of adult dignity I have left. I just want to be able to enjoy a dinner out.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 3:10 PM on July 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

You're just not going to get a single answer. Before I had a kid, I would have said, "Never! So rude!" I've worked as a server at restaurants before and I did not care if parents brought food for their kid, didn't even notice. But then, I never worked for a high-end restaurant.

I get really frustrated as a parent when I buy food off the menu that my kid won't eat. I'd rather she eat something which then makes her feel good and behave better which makes everyone's experience more enjoyable than reject purchased food, get cranky and loud, and kind of ruin the whole thing.

I love, love, love the bandit plate concept and would heart any restaurant who had this on the menu.
posted by amanda at 4:02 PM on July 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

Please forgive me for replying again, JoannaC, but just based on a few comments:

It's great to leave a big tip for any reason you like, but it doesn't compensate the restaurant for the food the child would have otherwise eaten because a tip is income to the server, not the restaurant. It particularly doesn't work in my restaurant because we pay regular wages rather than tipped wages, so little tipping is done anyway. (yesterday's tips were just under 3% of gross sales)

I empathize with those parents who do have fussy toddlers. I neglected to mention in my first comment that if a fussy picky-eating young child is an obstacle to enjoying a meal at a particular restaurant, parents have the right to hire a babysitter or leave the kids with a trusted friend or relative. Mrs. Tanizaki and I have been known to do that from time to time even though we have a kid who begs me to make her Brussels sprouts for breakfast. More generally, children can learn how to behave and eat in restaurants if that behavior is modeled and expected at the home dining table.

And I love the bandit plate idea. (we're fast casual so all sorts of sharing goes on anyway and is kind of encouraged - you don't need permission from us) I don't have a problem at all in my place with nothing being ordered for a child who just shares from an adult's plate, but bringing in food is a problem for the reasons I previously stated.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:13 PM on July 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't have any children that are fussy eaters, so I don't have any real experience. But what I imagine I will do is to buy some outside food, let the child eat the food outside, and then go into the restaurant.

In the restaurant, I will buy a drink or two for the child. Maybe even order some food for the child to see if the child will try. Sometimes, a child's taste bud does change, and you'll be surprised. Be prepared for the child not to eat the food, and I have to finish it for him.

After the meal, if the child is still hungry, I'll buy some food again for the child outside of the restaurant.

(Long-term-wise, I tend to agree it is good to train a child not to be a picky eater. The goal is to train the child to be okay to try new food, but not necessary to like every kind of food. But I do understand each child is different, and each family is different.)
posted by applesurf at 5:39 PM on July 9, 2014

I have a three year old and a one year old and regularly bring in outside food (prepared at home)for them. We eat at family friendly mid price restaurants. My children are not that picky but at the same time most kids menus feature processed cheese on white bread as grilled cheese or chicken fingers and fries etc. We try to feed our kids a balanced diet heavy on veggies (organic) and good fats. So the diaper bag has a small cooler (skip hop bento) that I use to bring steamed veggies, cut fruit and yogurt or cheese. I also bring a sippy cup of the kids organic lactose free (tummy troubles). If something on the menu looks decent enough to feed them, grilled chicken breast, veggie pizza, quesadilla etc I will order one for the kids to share.

Until this moment I never wondered (or cared) what the restaurant managers thought but I do always add an extra $5 or $10 on top of our 20% tip for the trouble of dealing with small children mess etc...

We eat at a lot of the same places and staff have always been super friendly to us. Though we do tip well, order multiple courses and pick up after the little ones. I would be shocked if a manager said anything to us about it (and yelp mommy furry would rain down on their establishment). At the few places we eat at that serve high quality kids food it is a pleasure and relief to order off the menu.
posted by saradarlin at 8:40 PM on July 9, 2014

I neglected to mention in my first comment that if a fussy picky-eating young child is an obstacle to enjoying a meal at a particular restaurant, parents have the right to hire a babysitter or leave the kids with a trusted friend or relative.

Tanizaki, I don't know if that comment could come off as more patronizing if you tried.

From the OP, to reiterate:

I should add that the child was well-behaved, not disruptive and stayed peacefully at the table the whole time. He picked at his contraband grilled cheese and played with some small toys which had been brought for him. Still, when the waiter cleared our table, there was the detritus of the Not Their Food kids meal.

In the grand scheme of things, I think the dinner thing that happened with OP's kid was fine. Totally fine. I mean, really, what are we talking about here? Food for a kid. In fact, in an even minor scheme, there's just nothing wrong here. I'm sure some restaurant owners care a lot and will judge mightily. Clearly. But the challenge of parenting is weighing many options, conflicting opinions, emotions and possibilities and trying to make a good choice with what's at hand. I've found myself doing things as a parent that I swore I would never do! (Duh.) I've found myself more distracted, more tired, more at my wit's end than I ever thought possible or understood. I am so much more sympathetic to other parents. Even those who look like they're having a bad time. Even those who are losing the battle today. Even those who look like they've lost the battle but guess what? what the hell do I know? What I'm seeing could be a good day in their world. And so I sympathize. As much as possible.

And I also just don't care as much. There's always gonna be someone out there doing it wrong. Might as well be me once in awhile.
posted by amanda at 10:08 PM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure I understand the difference between giving your kid a PB&J and giving them the bandit plate. In terms of being a restaurateur. Besides the potential health code problems, but if restaurants are foodsharing pizza from across the way, I assume a restaurant can adapt to most situations.

Honestly this thread gives you a pretty good idea of the American attitude toward children-- judge the parents, hide the kids away.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:18 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm Canadian; unlike Tanizaki I don't own my own place but I am a chef.

Bringing in outside food for your picky child (unless it is for actual health/allergy reasons and has been discussed with the restaurant beforehand) is just, frankly, rude. Plus the health code violations Tanizaki alluded to above. (I assume the pizza slice was in sort of a grey area there; two restaurants next to each other will borrow stuff all the time, and the chef will know and dis/trust the cleanliness of that kitchen.)

Bottom line: if you want to do something like this, always contact the restaurant first.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:23 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a server and honestly the only thing I care about is that you tip well and aren't a total jerk. I would just assume it's none of my business and there are reasons I can't know (and don't care about) for why a kid has a special sandwich. I wouldn't even think twice about it. I'd probably even get you a plate. Obviously this has its limits, but one kid, one sandwich? Not even a thing.
posted by Katine at 4:32 PM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

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