After two years of being mostly homebound, so many of us with young children have been eager to get back out into the world — and one thing my family really missed was eating at restaurants.
Dining out with a baby and/or toddler is a *completely different experience than dining solo, but if you arrive well prepared — and adjust your expectations — it really can be a fun experience. In fact, eating out with babies or toddlers is a great way to acclimate them to restaurant dining in general and also to explore new cuisines, foods, and flavors to boot.
Here’s everything you need to know about eating out with your baby or toddler — have fun!
Before you go:
- Consider the timing — for both your child and for when you plan to eat at the restaurant.
Ideally, you can plan to go out to eat at a time of day when your child is generally… more pleasant, LOL. Our kids have always been “morning people,” so we’ve gone out to breakfast much more than dinner over the years. Think about when your child is usually at her best, and see if you can’t schedule your outing then. Likewise, try to avoid sticky times like bedtime or naptime.
Most families also recommend choosing to eat during “off hours” when restaurants are less crowded, as it’s generally easier to get a table and be “in and out” more efficiently. (For the most part, this means arriving early to beat the brunch/lunch/dinner crowds.) For super busy spots, you can also think about making a reservation so that you don’t have to wait to sit at a table and then also wait to receive your meals.
- Choose where you eat mindfully — If you can, pick a kid-friendly restaurant where you won’t feel anxious every time your child makes any noise. There’s nothing more stressful than getting dirty looks from other customers when you’re out to eat, and simply opting for a family-friendly spot is half the battle.
- Plan something moderately active/stimulating right beforehand — this way you don’t show up with a child bursting with energy. For babies, this might simply mean a good nap and then a story or a little play time; for toddlers, perhaps it’s a quick trip to a park, a short walk, or a game.
Tips & Tricks
Here are the top pieces of advice from parents who’ve been there — ranging from what to bring with you to how to order, and all the rest:
- Secure the Right Seating
If you have a baby, they can often remain in a car seat or a trim stroller while you eat (or else sit on your lap).
For older babies and toddlers, ask for a high chair or booster seat, or consider bringing your own. Since the traditional, old-school wooden high chairs at most restaurants offer no back support, many families prefer to bring their own travel high chair out. This hook-on chair from Inglesina works well, and the newer Lalo booster seat is very functional.
- Babyproof Your Table
Right when you are seated, move everything out of your baby’s reach — this includes silverware and flatware, glasses, decorative items and condiments, etc. When our children were babies, we would offer something like a spoon for them to play with (or maybe a cloth napkin, hah), but cleared out everything else as a first order of business.
- Bring Some Entertainment
Bring along a few select items to occupy your child while you wait for food — this makes a *major difference in eating out for young children, who are generally accustomed to sitting down to the table when a meal is ready. We suggest things like board books, teethers, or simple, quiet toys.
- Bring Your Own Cup, Plate/Bowl, and Utensils
Bringing along a sippy cup, plastic plate or bowl, and a baby-friendly fork or spoon makes such a big difference in your experience — especially if your child has a tendency to throw things. It’s so much less stressful to feed your child (or let her eat on her own) when you aren’t worried about something breaking. And the cup, oh my goodness — even the “kiddie cups” at restaurants are not all that kid-friendly; in my experience, they’re prone to leaking, dripping, spilling, and tops that pop off… plus traditional plastic straws are kind of poky and overly tall for young children. Don’t forget your sippy cup!
- Bring Your Own Food
Although it may seem counterintuitive to bring food from home to a restaurant, this can be life-saving when you are eating out with young children.
If you have a younger baby who is still on purees, you may need or want to feed them separately (obviously most restaurants don’t have purees on the menu!). Amara organic baby food is perfect for eating out — it’s easy to pack (no breakable jars clanking around in your diaper bag!) and you can mix the puree right at your table using a few tablespoons of water or breastmilk. Even once our children were eating some finger foods, we always liked to bring a puree with us to restaurants just in case — it’s a great supplement even if you anticipate your child having something from the menu.
Speaking of which, we also recommend a few easy, mess-free finger foods for older babies and toddlers. We typically relied on these snacks to make it through the waiting period between when you order and when you receive your food, and it’s also a nice insurance policy in case your toddler decides to boycott the restaurant’s offerings. Our favorite things to bring along on restaurant outings during the toddler years were cheese, peas, berries, and Amara toddler yogurt bites.
- Pack an Extra Shirt or Outfit
I don’t know if my kids ever left a restaurant wearing the same thing as when we arrived — there was inevitably some spill or mess that resulted in a wardrobe change. (This is still mostly true, hah!) Come prepared with extra clothes, friends.
- Bring Wet Wipes
Even after my kids were out of diapers, I brought wet wipes everywhere — we always needed them at restaurants to wipe sticky fingers and faces and also to wipe up my kids’ seats and the floor, which were always littered with crumbs and spills.
- Tips for Ordering
- Veteran parents recommend putting in your order quickly — if you can, try to order your meals with your drinks (some indecisive eaters even suggest looking at the menu ahead of time so you don’t feel a time crunch to make a selection when you arrive). Alternatively, some families choose to order a toddler-friendly appetizer that will be quick to come out.
- Ask for the check early on (when your meals come out) — this way you don’t get stuck waiting for your bill after your meal has run its course.
- Try to find healthy menu options for your child — but don’t overstress about what to order for them. Just getting them out to a restaurant is a great experience! Nutritionists suggest sticking to water or milk for beverages (rather than sugar-laden juice), and since most American restaurants (unfortunately) offer bland, over-processed foods on their kids’ menus, also recommend trying to avoid the kids’ menu. Instead, they say, look for simple dishes featuring cooked vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, or tofu. Side dishes are a great place to look for offerings that are simple and healthy. And just like at home, make sure to avoid anything containing hot spices (though herbs are just fine), excess salt, and added sugar.
Lastly, the *biggest single piece of advice for eating out with your baby or toddler is to adjust your expectations — it will probably involve a big mess and it will definitely be different than eating out without kids, but if you can head into it with the right mindset, it’s a super fun cultural experience for everyone.
What are your best tips for dining out with young children?