Eating out with Toddlers: Tips for Family Fine Dining

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Eating out with toddlers doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Try these great tips to make your restaurant experiences more palatable.

OK, let’s get it straight: having kids doesn’t meanyour life is over or that you have to sacrifice your social life. I’m passionate about this belief, especially when it comes to eating out, an activity our family long ago elevated to high hobby. I want my daughter to appreciate fine food and good dining as much as I do, so from the time she was born we’ve been hauling her to restaurants—and having a good time, too.

Granted, we’re unusual. If you’re like most parents, it’s been a long time since you ventured beyond the neighborhood pizza parlor with little ones. Remember those long ago days before kids when you used to go to real restaurants? Not McHotDog Queen. Not that faux Italian place in the mall with the floor sticky from spilled soda where they pass out free earplugs at the door to drown out the endless beeps and crashes of the video arcade. I’m talking about places with tablecloths and wait staff, not announcements over the loud speaker (“Number 12, your dinner is ready … number 12, please!”).

I know. Next month is your anniversary, and you plan to get a babysitter and go out. Until then … Until then …? That’s no way to live! While going out to eat with babies and toddlers can be a challenge, it isn’t impossible, foolhardy, or insane. It’s usually enjoyable. It does take a little practice but it’s worth it.

Here, then, is a quick hit version of everything I know about restauranteering with the under-five set.

Proper Preparation

  • Leave your fears at home. Most people don’t mind children in restaurants as long as they aren’t disruptive. We’re not talking four-star, staid establishments here. There are a zillion informal and excellent restaurants in the world; some of them might even be in your hometown.
  • Set reasonable expectations. Your child won’t be perfect, quiet, neat, and adventurous at first. Eating out is a skill—and as usual, practice makes perfect. The way to teach your little ones how to act in a restaurant is to take them to restaurants.
  • Choose appropriate restaurants. Moderately priced ethnic restaurants, trendy university hangouts, casual but elegant dining of all kinds—these are all good choices. Focus especially on ethnic restaurants—most cultures are less uptight about children. (Some cultures even appreciate them!)
  • Take the edge off. Feed your child a little something in the car on the way. Not enough to fill her up, but enough so she isn’t dying of hunger while you wait. Alternatively, ask the wait staff for bread the moment you arrive.
  • Tote along a little kit of supplies (toys, food, coloring books). Stock your wallet with emergency stickers and bandages—not for injury, but for entertainment. Bring anything that your child enjoys that isn’t noisy, messy, or large.

Once at the Restaurant

  • Don’t try to sneak your baby in. Enlist the help of the restaurant staff. Introduce your baby to the host/hostess and say, “Hannah is really looking forward to your wonderful food!” The host/hostess will see how cute your baby is, make goo-goo eyes at her, and do whatever he/she can to make you meal go smoothly.
  • Sit near the door if possible. If your child cries, take him outside immediately. Be firm with your child that he cannot reenter the restaurant until he calms down and is quiet.
  • Take a walk immediately after you order your food. This could be around the restaurant or outside.
  • Improvise. Cloth napkins work to strap your child to the high chair so he doesn’t bounce or crawl out. Likewise, feel free to hold your child—a parent’s lap can help relax a little one.
  • Set limits about where your antsy toddler can toddle. Around your table is fine, but the aisle is off-limits, as are other people’s tables.
  • Drape and cover! You might want to carry a small plastic drop cloth for under baby’s chair, especially if you know that your chosen dining destination has nice rugs. Wait to shake until outside. Well outside.
  • When ordering food, don’t forget your child. A side order or two will make your toddler feel special and may actually land her something she likes. Little kids tend to like food that comes in tiny bits (noodles, beans, peas, blueberries, cut-up fruit) and many don’t like their foods to touch each other.
  • Give your child tastes of your food. If you treat food and eating as an adventure, your child (eventually if not immediately) will too.
  • Offer to clean up under the high chair when you’re done. The restaurant staff will refuse (it’s not good business practice to have the customer on her knees, at least not in a nice restaurant) but they’ll appreciate your offer. They may even resist putting up the “closed” sign when they see you walking down the street.

Final Words of Advice

Relax. And (try to) have fun! Remember, when enjoying a meal out on the town with your kids in tow, there are two very important rules that must never be broken:

  • Don’t ever, ever change a baby or toddler at the table. I’m not kidding, and I mean it.
  • Leave a big tip.

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