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Oct 18, 2011 08:38 AM

Tips for dining out with babies and toddlers, please

Apologies if this has been posted thousands of times before, but would you all share your tips for dining out with young children? Do you keep a portable high chair and/or booster seat in your car for places that welcome kids but that don't offer them so you're prepared? Or do you skip those places altogether if you're got your child along?

Do you bring along a sippy cup and snacks or foods and feed the little one while you eat? Do you feed your kid before you go? Do you bring a food mill and try to grind up a little of what you're eating? Cut it up into chunks and offer it as finger foods? What if you go somewhere and they don't have a changing table?

I need your help with all of the above, and all of the things I didn't think to ask!

Thanks in advance!


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  1. I did a lot of those things when my 3 were young. We didn't carry a booster seat, never really needed it. I always had some sort of food in my bag - cheerios, crackers, goldfish, whatever - and sippy or lidded cups. I also had crayons and small quiet toys (matchbox cars, tiny animals, etc). The kids could snack & play while we waited for the food. I usually just fed them off my plate as finger foods, bits of whatever they might want. Ordering separate food for them was just wasted. Sometimes I would feed them ahead of time (especially as babies), depending on when we anticipated actually eating.

    Two main points on eating out with babies & toddlers that I took seriously:
    1) As soon as any child got fussy, one adult would immediately get up & take child out for a walk around. A change of scene can work wonders. If the child didn't calm down enough to return, we left.

    2) I always cleaned the table & floor as much as possible. The servers got generous tips for basic service, since there was always a little extra running & cleaning necessary. Servers who were extra attentive got very generous tips.

    3 Replies
    1. re: elfcook

      Ah, see, you know all the answers to the questions I should have asked, thank you! These are perfect, keep them rolling folks!


      1. re: elfcook

        Absolutely on the cleaning up any mess and tipping generously!

        1. re: elfcook

          I ditto elfcook's 2 points, but not the initial part. I find that if you feed them snacks, they don't want to eat when everyone else is eating and then you've got trouble, as a baby that is DONE wants to LEAVE. YMMV. For us, it's best to distract the child until the food gets there, and then give them whatever they are eating. While on baby food, we would take turns - whomever was hungriest would eat first while the other parent fed the baby. Once baby and adult #1 were done, we would take baby out of there and let parent #2 finish in some semblance of peace, while we carried the infant around the restaurant, took it to get changed, or took it outside to play and wait for adult #2 to finish up. Speed is of the essence. As they are setting down the food, ask for the check. Pay as soon as it's presented so you can be all settled up and just bolt if things get ugly.

          Every child is different but mine had (and still has) trouble sitting in the high chair for long periods of time waiting. Toys and other in-chair distractions just did not cut it for more than a couple of minutes. Typically, our MO is as soon as we get there, I decide what everyone is getting and just order for all 3 of us, then mr. RNR takes the little one outside to play. Diners with train tables are a godsend. Or we might just run up and down the handicapped ramp near the takeout area or whatever. Anything so that the kid is not sitting there getting frustrated with waiting. When food arrives, I cut up the little one's food and get it all ready, then call DH and have him bring the kid back. I feed the kid or now, he feeds himself, and we cram down food really fast. Whomever is done first then takes the kid outside or elsewhere while the other settles up the check, gets any necessary takeout boxes, and does remedial cleaning.

          When no changing station is available, I have changed him on the sink counter. Sorry people, but if you don't provide, I will make do. If there is not enough room on the sink, I change him in the car in the back seat - have done this many times. When no high chair is available, hold the child on your lap. You eat with one hand or not eat at all this way, so it's helpful to have someone to hand the child off to when they are done eating so then you can eat.

        2. Lulu has been dining out with us since she was a week or so old. It gets easier as time goes on, and they learn quickly what is acceptable and what isn't (throwing those cheerios on the floor, screaming). You'll do great.

          Yes - do bring some sort of little finger food snack like cheerios. There was about a 1 year period when I didn't ever go without the ziplock full of those (and for special occasions the much loved "colorful cheerios" - fruit loops, usually picked up in airports or at hotel breakfasts). I also remember she liked the yogurt covered ones. That, and some sort of board book - for both gnawing and looking purposes. Oh, and apple slices are easy to carry along, and take a while to chew on. Once he gets to the crayon stage, you'll replace the cheerios with these.

          I still bring along Lulu's sippy most of the time we go out. I just feel more comfortable without the chance of broken glass. There was only one place we went to that didn't have high chairs or something like it, and so we just wheeled her stroller up to the table. Given that she was well behaved throughout the meal, and that we ate and drank well, they didn't have a problem, but I normally took it to be a sign that children were not wanted when high chairs weren't available, and stayed away when she was with us.

          Always give bites (if he is at that stage) so that he can get new tastes. If there is any kind of appetizer thing on the menu that you think might appeal, go for it as his dinner. Gnawing on whatever bread you're given seems to be fun for them too. Your shown enthusiasm for your own food, and for his willingness to try new things, will do wonders.

          Our main rule was that if she started acting up in any way that was disruptive, one of us took her outside (or away from the action) immediately. While away from the action, make sure that the child doesn't get extra attention from whichever parent is taking him; otherwise he'll see it as a fun thing, instead of a consequence of his actions. Other diners appreciate it, and by the time Lulu was 2-3 months old, she knew that she wouldn't get away with it. I realize you didn't ask for parenting advice, but I thought I'd throw this your way just in case.

          hope at least some of this helps!

          1 Reply
          1. re: LulusMom

            Food or dining-related parenting advice always welcome!


          2. Agree with the advice already posted here. A few additional thoughts (DS is now 15 months old and has been in restaurants since he was just a few weeks old):

            1. Most restaurants have low-fat milk, not whole, and will happily provide kids' cups with straws (or at least a straw for a regular glass). So if you want your child to drink something else, bring it.
            2. We really liked the disposable placemats with adhesive strips along the edges. We were able to give DS his own food without risking a broken plate, and it rolls up for easy clean-up. However, the placemats will not stick to tablecloths...
            3. I took snack food to start DS on, like Cheerios or Kix, blueberries or cut-up grapes, etc. Eating that usually distracted him enough until our meals came. We had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory a few months ago and our server brought DS his own plate of cut-up fruit and bread while we were waiting for our meals.
            4. Back in his puree-eating days, we'd just take stuff with us - no need to try to prep it at the table. Now, depending on where we go, we either order more food for ourselves and share with him (e.g., full-size salad and gave him chicken, beans, cheese, etc. out of it) or order a dish for him. I prefer to share because it's more cost-effective and he gets to try more stuff. SO many places just have chicken nuggets and Kraft mac n cheese on their kids menu - DS has gotten to taste chicken satay and pastitsio!
            5. I've only taken DS to two places that did not have changing tables in the restroom. One was in an older (historic) building, but there was enough space to spread the changing pad on the floor - not ideal, but the best of the bad options. The other was a Chipotle in a newer shopping center. I threw a mini-tantrum to the manager, and then took DS back out to the car to change him on the backseat.
            6. We've never not been able to get a highchair. However, our local diner has these weird clip-on chairs which DS has figured out how to get out of... so we will take our strap-on-the-chair booster seat the next time we go!
            7. We increase the servers' tips to account for the extra clean-up and service required.
            8. We go out for lunch and brunch a lot more than dinner. It works better re. DS's naptimes, and it's also a good way for us to teach DS good restaurant behavior when other guests and staff are a bit more tolerant.
            Have fun!

            1. I would take cheerios (or similar dry, non messy food that takes little fingers a very long time is pick up one by one) to keep our son occupied but aside from that, he ate whatever I was having and drank water or milk. I did take a small cup for him to use.

              No changing table? It is possible to change a baby on your lap. It takes practice. My husband is the one that taught me. Have the diapers, wipes ready and a drop cloth to put over your lap. You can use those blue pad/puppy piddle pads that are slim and easy to stash in your bag or other flannel covered things sold in the baby section of any big box store.

              We were blessed with a child who was very happy to sit and watch the world around him. As he got older, we did switch to more lunches versus dinners.

              When he was at the stage where he wanted to feed himself (this is when things get messy) I took a clear plastic shower curtain and cut it down to create a drop zone. (I always asked if it was ok to use it) When he was done eating, I would fold it up, scraps and all, and deal with it at home.

              We only encountered one restaurant in the states that didn't have a high chair. I held him on my lap for that meal. When travelling outside of the contig. 48 states, we often found restaurants didn't have high chairs. Oddly enough, this was in areas where children are always with their parents. My guess is they tend to hold or wear their kids more.

              Maybe we were just lucky but we had fantastic experiences taking our son out for meals when he was little. We are regulars at local, independenty owned places and the managers and owners were always very welcoming. My husband and I joke the only real "problem" we had was when the waitress at our local Japenese restaurant wanted to carry our son around and take him into the kitchen when he was just a few months old. I know he was under 6mo old. I let her hold and carry him but put my foot down at kitchen visits.

              Another tip? Raise your little chowhound to eat off the main menu. I don't even allow a server to put a traditional kid's menu on the table.

              4 Replies
              1. re: cleobeach

                Wholeheartedly agree bout the kids menu! Keep them away.

                My diaper bag had a little plastic sheet type thing in it so that if I found myself at a place with no changing station I could just lay that down somewhere. Came in handy on a number of occasions.

                1. re: LulusMom

                  Wholeheartedly agree bout the kids menu! Keep them away.


                  I have encountered a few exceptions but sadly, even some of the nicer places try to force cheap, fried food on little ones.

                  My favorite places are the ones that say right out "we don't offer a child's menu but are happy to scale down any dish on the menu"

                  1. re: cleobeach

                    I completely love your point on the "no children's menu" thing, unless it is truly a scaling down of adult menu items.


                    1. re: cleobeach

                      Also, depending on what your son ends up loving to eat, many places will happily throw together certain easy things. For a while, Lulu's favorite food was pasta with garlic and olive oil. Any restaurant with pasta can make that, and pretty much every place we asked happily did so.

                2. I will also add that our child is only 2, but now that he eats real people food instead of baby food, we do not order off the kids menu unless we know he's not going to eat much, like he can have mac & cheese and side of broccoli. But no chic fingers, fries, etc.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: rockandroller1

                    I want to add that I don't mean to sound preachy/snotty about the kid's menu. If someone's child eats healthy at home and getting those chicky fingers and fries is a treat when going out -have at it and enjoy it.

                    The typical kid offering just doesn't work for our son because he doesn't like that type of food yet is drawn into the novelty. If I do let him order chicken fingers, he eats one or two bites and then wants real food.

                    1. re: cleobeach

                      I don't think you sound preachy/snotty, but that's perhaps because I am of the same mind.

                      From my perspective, I'd like to think it's about exposing my child to different flavors and cuisines as early as possible because those are the foods I enjoy eating and I don't want to wait until he is off to college to eat those foods out again. My hope would be that s/he will come to develop an appreciation for these foods early in life and eventually feel comfortable enough or adventurous enough to prefer them over mac and cheese if it's not a mac and cheese restaurant, so to speak. Otherwise, if all s/he eats out is mac and cheese, that's all s/he might ever eat out.

                      Then again, I can completely understand why a parent might let a child order off the "kids menu" if that strategy of teaching your child to appreciate variety doesn't work for whatever reason. If letting him/her order mac and cheese is a way of keeping the peace while you enjoy a rare meal out, then you have to do what you have to do.

                      Or, as you say, a parent might approach it as, eating out should be a treat for everyone, why not let the child order what s/he most wants? I can see it many ways. I think this is one of those situations where you just have to decide what's best for your family, perhaps even on a child by child basis as they all have little minds of their own.

                      But, someday, I'd love to see my 8 year old order, say, pho off the menu at a Vietnamese restaurant and look forward to that with as much delight and anticipation as he would ordering a burger off the menu at the local pub. *fingers crossed*

                      My Chowhoundly wish as a parent...


                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        We had our "moment" this summer during lunch in Stonington, CT.

                        I can't remember the name of the restaurant but it was on the water and had a lunch special of steamers, lobster bisque and a small lobster. When our son heard me order, he said he wanted the same. The waitress was like "no, seriously, what does he want?"

                        He ate every bit of that lunch, even cleaning his own lobster out of the shell and helped me finish mine. He was 5yo at the time.

                        I have had more than one waitperson agrue with me about what my child "won't eat."

                        1. re: cleobeach

                          Now that is pretty darn cool. Gives me shivers!


                          1. re: cleobeach

                            Those sorts of waitpeople (and I used to wait tables myself) drive me *crazy*. Once Lulu ordered a salad to start, and the waitress looked and her and said "Really?? Never had a kid ask for that before." So, of course, Lulu said "never mind, I don't want it." And then there are the ones who quickly say "oh, you won't want that, it is too spicy." Suddenly she won't want it, whereas if nothing is said, she'll eat the spiciest stuff there is. Beware such servers!

                            1. re: LulusMom

                              Kind of presumptuous of a server to tell a person of any age what they want to eat... I'm sure they mean well, but oh my how frustrating!


                              1. re: LulusMom

                                As someone who was a server, I say cut your losses and make your warnings known. Neither my co-workers nor I ever "told" anyone what their child would or would not eat. Most servers can tell the difference between a food-savvy child and one that's being indulged because he/she might throw a tantrum in retaliation. I was thanked far more often than not when I mentioned bones, shells, spices, portion-size, etc. to the over-indulging parents who were about to let their 6 year old order half a chicken swimming in wine and garlic or a lobster in the shell with a spicy chili sauce.

                                If some of you people with children knew how much food gets thrown out and goes unpaid for in restaurants because Isabela and Joshua didn't know anything about a dish but were allowed to order it anyway, you'd change your tune.You certainly don't run your homes that way.

                                1. re: staughton

                                  I waited tables too. For many, many years.

                              2. re: cleobeach

                                These kinds of servers definitely get the stink eye from me and it reflects on their tip. Our dd has gotten the same thing from servers, less now, at 9, than when she was younger. We had the exact same thing happen to us, but it was mussels, not lobster (although dd loves lobster, too.) Same when she orders salads. Sometimes as her entree. Surly a child can't resist the fried, processed chicken nuggets and fries.

                                We once had a waiter that was pretty adamant that dd not order a bottle of sparkling mineral water and get Sprite instead (we don't drink soda pop, so she's never had it.) Finally he blurted out, "but it's $5 a bottle!! That's what the food on the kid's menu costs and a drink is included in the price." I just replied, "Well, she won't be ordering off of the kids menu, anyway, so it's O.K." I don't think adventurous child diners are that rare, just this waiter was kind of clueless. Many are.

                                1. re: velochic

                                  There is definately a segment of the population that thinks children should be fed as cheapy as possible, that they aren't deserving of "good" food or that "good" food is wasted on the young.

                                  So sad when you think about it. But then again, if everyone was raised to a wide variety of good foods, we wouldn't have the fantastically entertaining "My ILs are coming for Thanksgiving dinner and will only eat StoveTop stuffing" posts!

                                  1. re: cleobeach

                                    In a way, waitstaff like these who can't handle out-of-the-ordinary requests from children are no more than control freaks who want the children to assume their expectations of them. Great that parents stick up for the kids and allow them to be different in their preferences. Since she was able to eat solid food, my daughter has always loved crunching raw vegetables. At 22, she still does!