Tricks for dining in restaurants with babies and toddlers

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Mainstream parenting advice about dining in restaurants with babies and toddlers is not terrific. It’s misleading at best. It’s destructive at its worst. Here’s an excerpt from a parenting newsletter that just appeared in our inbox:

“Don’t let your toddler keep you from enjoying the occasional meal out. You deserve a break! Some quick tips: choose a family-friendly restaurant — anywhere with a kids’ menu, crayons and paper, and a din loud enough to drown out occasional squeals and whines. Take along a few small toys and plastic bags of snack food (rice cakes, cubes of cheese, cut-up fruit) to keep your toddler occupied. These diversions should buy you enough time to order and enjoy most of your meal.”

That’s not how we handle it. Dining out is a pleasure for all ages; the best way to have well-behaved babies and toddlers in restaurants is to engage your special little people in the hedonism of the experience. Like all things with small folk, having a smooth experience takes practice. Will it be easier to hire a sitter and go out alone? In the short term, maybe yes.

It also comes with its own set of complications. When traveling it can be hard to find a sitter. A sitter is more costly than bringing your kid and ordering a little extra. The most grave consequence of avoiding dining out with babies and toddlers: if you don’t try it, they will never learn how to appreciate it. Do you really want to get take-out for the next significant chunk of your life?

We know parents who have been dining out with their small folk since birth. We know parents who dine out with small folk in restaurants that don’t have high chairs or coloring mats. We even know parents of small folk who take their entire families to Michelin starred restaurants. We are this family.

Here are our tips and tricks for having a smooth family restaurant experience.

Tricks for dining out in restaurants with babies and toddlers

Keep routines before your restaurant day.

Restaurant meals invariably occur during nap time. Babies can snooze in restaurants in carriers, strollers and car seats. For toddlers, who will skip nap time for lunch or for an evening meal, make sure you had a normal schedule the day before so they’re not already overtired and fussy.

Make a reservation and tell the restaurant about the tots.

It’s best to let the staff know you’re coming with small folk in tow. That way, they can potentially help you. Restaurants that don’t have high chairs have been known to whisk them out with advance warning. They’ll seat you in a place they think suits, with more room for parking strollers etc.

Dine off the mainstream schedule.

If it’s not a restaurant with continuous service, reserve for the first meal seating, rather than 8pm. You get more attention. You can order immediately. You can talk to the waitstaff about the menu. Your kids can charm the waitstaff. That way, if you do linger, it will be for positive reasons, not because you didn’t get attention.

Show up 15-30 minutes early.

Say you’re in Paris and dinner doesn’t start until 7:30pm. Bedtime is 7. Getting to start a few minutes earlier means a world of good for sleepy small folk. Usually, they’ll seat you. Plus you take longer to settle with a baby or tot than without.

Share your food with them.

The goal of dining out is to share the pleasure of good food in a convivial setting. Trying to guess  what your kids want when they’re pre-verbal can be risky and expensive. We all know small folk want what’s on your plate.  Why? Because you have it. So order for you and share. It’s a great way to encourage sharing and set up enjoyable associations about trying new food. Small plates menus are often the most fun with small folk. Wonder why…

Fried anchovies. Sardine paste. Pesto. Squid. Crab legs. Mackerel. Wasabi. Pigeon. Ramen. Rabbit. Camembert. Chevre. Golden beets. Jerusalem artichokes. Chard. Fiddleheads. Chanterelles. Pommes souffle. Passion fruit. All firsts our kids have experienced dining out.

If your kid loses it, leave until they’re calm.

You’ve taken your small folk somewhere where everyone is trying to enjoy a meal. If a tot has a tantrum, take them outside. It your baby wants to have a big cry before settling to sleep, have one parent roll them around the block.

Taking a break helps everyone involved. It will help the baby sleep. It will help the toddler learn that we don’t tantrum and get to hang out. It helps parents and children deal with it calmly and slowly, without the pressure of an audience. Other diners don’t have to listen. Win. Win. Win. Win.

Bring your own “coloring mat.”

There is waiting time at restaurants. It’s good to have a few small activities on hand. We bring pens, paper and even stickers. There are dining/food themed stickers so you can prep a pretend meal, should you wish to branch out from dinos and ponies. We bring a book or two.  We have even been known to bring one small stuffed animal friend who pretends to dine out as well. But put the activities away when the meal comes.

Avoid screens.

Okay, in total crisis mode, say if your cherub is just having an off day and your main has already arrived, you can bust out a screen and let them veg. Otherwise, don’t do it. It defeats the purpose of the convivial meal setting.

Snacks are not your friend.

Say you deploy snacks from home before the food arrives. 70 million goldfish later, your small folk are not hungry. Then the food arrives. They’re also bored. Not ideal. Bored small folk are big trouble.

Rather, share the starters (or bread) with them, and use the time to talk about the restaurant. Do the activities you brought. If it’s a craft beer bar, wine bar, or any bar, bringing your own small folk snacks may be advisable. Obviously a brewpub in Portland will have awesome bar snacks, while a cafe in Marseille will not serve anything substantial between meal times.

Outdoor dining is your friend.

Open-air dining is your bestie. Whether it’s outdoor summer seating in Portland or pintxos hour in an Old Town courtyard in San Sebastian, Spain, the space allows small folk to nibble, roam, and even make friends with other small folk doing the same.

Use a small stroller or a portable highchair.

If you find yourself in a high-chair free situation, you have some options depending on your child’s age. The easiest is to bring a travel high chair and strap it onto the seat, or roll a small travel stroller right up to the table. Go light and lean. Our favorite travel stroller is the UPPAbaby G-lite.

We don’t love lap-sitting because the parent holding the kid doesn’t get to enjoy their food. It’s not ideal. For toddlers, it can also be nice to sit in a real chair like an adult.

Do a ground check before you leave.

You can find lost items, and avoid leaving excessive mess. Dropping a fork is no biggie. Shredding everything within range and throwing it on the floor requires a parent to tidy up. Opt for common courtesy as your default.

Image: Oleg Sidorenko

About author

Small Folk Travel

Small Folk Travel is a family travel site by mama and travel writer Taraneh Jerven. The Jerven family (two toddlers, one bun in the oven) travels incessantly. When researching our trips, we couldn’t find the family travel coverage we were looking for. We did our own research. We wrote the family travel guides ourselves. Taraneh Jerven writes for international travel publishers including RoughGuides.com and DK Eyewitness Travel.

We cover good stuff for discerning parents and their little ones. Often these overlap. If they don’t, we take turns.

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