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Parents- Do you bring food into a restaurant for your kids?

I'm starting a thread because I'm not entirely sure what the proper etiquette for this situation is and I thought I'd see what the hounds thought.

To preface, I have a 20 month old and my husband and I sometimes take him with us out to eat. We go at off-times to places that are willing to accomodate children and do everything in our power to make sure we are non-disruptive to other diners. Thus far, he's been pretty well-behaved and not caused any incidents, but he's still a toddler and it is our responsibility to make sure we are well prepared for any possibility. Sometimes this means that he is too hungry to wait for an order that is taking longer than expected, or, for whatever reason, he has rejected the food we got from the restaurant for him and yet is still hungry. Therefore, I now have a "mom-purse" that is littered with bags of emergency cheerios and usually a banana or cup of apple sauce.

My questions are:

1. Is it ok for me to bring outside food in to give to my child? I can't imagine it being ok to do this for adults, and if it's ok for kids, what's the cut-off age?

2. Is it ok for me to feed him outside food if I'm not ordering anything specifically for him? (I've yet to see anything on a children's menu that we would give him, so when we can, we order from the regular menus, but more often than not, it works best for us to just give him some of our food)

Very curious on everyone's thoughts on this, thanks!

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  1. I might have had an emergency pack of Annie's cheddar bunnies but more often than not I found if you give them the snack while waiting, then they refuse to eat because they're not hungry, so then it's a real nightmare as the food arrives and the kid is DONE and wants to GO NOW.

    The way we've always done it is, as soon as everyone figures out what they want, one person takes the child somewhere to entertain them. Walk around and look at stuff inside the restaurant (carrying them or holding hands, not a child running loose), or, optimally even in cold weather, go outside in front of the restaurant and play for a few minutes. We might even bring some kind of toy to play with. Then the other parent calls you when all the food has arrived AND the kid's food is cut up, cooled off enough to eat and ready to go. If you take them when they are very hungry, they have a much higher chance of settling down and eating, but it's also harder to get them to wait, hence distracting them until food arrives.

    I can say at this point (almost 4) we do not do this anymore. The point at which you stop is the point you realize your child actually can wait in some fashion without the snacks, and that snacks should be saved for a true "emergency," like a horrible traffic tie up at dinnertime or something.

    When I have been alone with the little one handling this, I just tell the server we will be back in a few minutes and then do the same thing until I see or get a feeling the food has arrived.

    YMMV of course.

    The other thing to do is as soon as the food is served, ask for the check and to-go boxes. This way you are ready to leave IMMEDIATELY if you need to vacate. We never get anything besides the meal so no reason we can't just settle up as soon as the food is served. Typically, then the OTHER parent would take the kid outside while the original one who took the child out could then pack up food and handle settling the check, so the child duty is split.

    10 Replies
    1. re: rockandroller1

      We do the entertain him somewhere else thing too, but our kid is basically a garbage disposal of food. Once we're in a restaurant and he sees food anywhere, he wants it. Him not being hungry enough to eat is almost never a concern. We also ask for the check as soon as we order, just in case we need to bolt.

      Did you ever feel guilty bringing in the Annie's snacks, or you didn't worry about that because you rarely had to use them?

      1. re: hyacinthgirl

        I would say the latter. We were just never the people spooning up applesauce or whatever. Mostly because we try hard to avoid restaurants with all of us because a) expensive and b) tiny kid. I packed picnic food for road trips so we wouldn't have to deal with fast food and crap on the road, and have ordered in at hotels. So restaurant out when the kid was basically younger than 3 was more of a desperation move, so we just employed that same tactic each time. I don't even remember giving him jarred baby food as a baby in a restaurant, but we almost never went out when he was a really small infant as he needed constant movement. I remember one brunch where we each took turns standing next to the table rocking back and forth while the other ate. So glad those days are gone.

      2. re: rockandroller1

        When our daughter no longer ate from a blender jar, she would be taken to a restaurant. Since table manners were enforced from the start, we rarely had to leave due to her actions. Twice that I can think of.

        And I did not have a man purse full of nibbles for her. She got her snacks and meals at a set time. She learned patience. She grew up in a military dictatorship. Military Police on one side and Armor on the other.

        If you do have to bring food, I hope you will volunteer to your server that you will gladly pay a plate charge. And please tip in relation to the demands your little darling has required.

        Sorry, bad day. Two hellions invaded the office and their adults did nothing to restrain them. Antiques damaged, computers turned on, candy stolen. You get the idea.

        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

          "And please tip in relation to the demands your little darling has required."

          Egad, once again the tipping monster rears its ugly head.

          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

            You do realize that every kid is different right? I have a friend with two children. The older one is very well behaved, and has been since he was a baby. Started sleeping through the night at 1 month old etc. His younger sister can be really awful... cries a lot, is very dramatic. Even now they are a bit older and he's totally content to just sit and read a book or play video games by himself, whereas she needs constant attention and runs around like crazy. They were raised exactly the same... just personalities come into play at some point. So, that's great your daughter did so well but even the best parenting can't prevent some kids from being a bit nuts.

            1. re: juliejulez

              Sounds like in this case the children were not allowed to eat at restaurants until they were much older. Bizarre yet some people do not expose their babies/toddlers to public settings because the adults struggle to deal with many behaviors prominent at those ages.

              Not me lol, I was breast feeding my baby at restaurants and (gasp) not tipping as if she had ordered a beverage. She now loves the social aspect of eating out even though her teeth are still catching up with her.

              1. re: olyolyy

                That cracks me up about the beverage olyolyy. Good points. My mom always said that if the kids were not expected to sit and eat with the family for the entire meal at home, then how can you expect them to do it when out?

            2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

              Not sure why you replied to me on that one?

              1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                "Two hellions invaded the office and their adults did nothing to restrain them. Antiques damaged, computers turned on, candy stolen. You get the idea."

                Your issue is with "their adults" in this situation. Did no one step up and ask them to rein in the children?

                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                  I've had the invisible parent's children running through the office days too, they suck.

                  My tip always increases when we have our child in case there are additional messes/challenges for the server. That said, if he knocks something on the floor accidentally, or spills in his booster seat, I also make a point to clean the area before we leave.

              2. I always keep a small meal and thermos of milk on me when I eat out with my 16 month old. Most places I go do not have a kids menu. Between teething and temperament, it's critical to be prepared that a baby might not eat what's being served (even of they do so most of the time) to have an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. It does seem there is a cutoff age after the toddler years.

                I have seen parents that eat out and pack older kids their own food presumably because the cost is too high or the food available for kids is unhealthy(or maybe just picky eaters?). I don't blame them, kids menu options have a ways to go at most places and it can be costly and frustrating to have a child not eat a $15 meal, etc.

                1. I don't have kids, but I don't see any issue if the foods are snacky type foods like you mentioned...cheerios, a piece of fruit, applesauce. Basically anything that's not like what they have available in the restaurant. I think the age cut off is maybe once they can form full sentences, so what, like 3? At that point you can order him something off the kid's menu, or maybe an appetizer if you don't like what's on the kid's menu.

                  I do agree w/ maybe tipping a bit more if you're requesting an extra plate and he's eating off of your plates. I was out to eat at a Thai place on Friday night and next to us was a family of 4, and the kids were small, and just eating off of mom and dad's orders, but they left a ginormous mess, on both the table and the surrounding floor. Now maybe your kid is clean but that is a lot of extra work for the staff so a larger tip would be greatly appreciated.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: juliejulez

                    Many years ago, I was a server and I dreaded getting a table with a young child for exactly that reason. I might now be a bit oversensitive to that, as at least twice a server or busser has told me to worry about it as I obsessively try to track down and clean any possible mess that might be left. Out of guilt, I probably leave a cleaner table when I'm dining with my child than I do when we're alone.

                  2. When my daughter was an infant and toddler, I was always prepared with food in the diaper bag (goldfish crackers, string cheese, fruit) for emergencies. I never hesitated to serve her those items in restaurants and honestly wouldn't have thought about it being an etiquette issue as my goal was to keep her quiet and well-mannered during the meal. Of course if there were crumbs, etc. as a result of her eating I would clean those up (same if I had purchased the mean and she made a mess).

                    If there was something on the menu that she could and would eat, I would order it. But there are just times when a tired toddler on vacation and away from regular surroundings just prefers something familiar. IIRC, this was probably til she was about 3.

                    1. I don't what is proper but I never have brought my own food into a restaurant for my child.

                      As soon as he started solid food he ate whatever we ate with rare exception ie: peanuts, honey, extreme spicy.

                      When he was very small I travelled with a small hand held food mill and and would just process whatever I was eating thru it. As he got a little older I would cut up some of my dinner for him. As a toddler I ordered what I thought he would like.

                      I am lucky that many of the local places (high end and casual) were happy to make small servings of menu items for nominal prices. I think they were just happy to see a kid eating something other than pasta and chicken nuggets!

                      12 Replies
                      1. re: foodieX2

                        I love that places were willing to make smaller servings! At home we feed him whatever we're eating, but he's going through a stage where that sometimes means he spends 5-10 minutes whining about the meal before he agrees to try/eat it. At home, we can ignore his whining and carry on, but I wouldn't subject strangers to this in a restaurant, so I like to have options on hand in case he is having his occasional sudden moments where he can NOT BELIEVE WE WOULD DARE SUGGEST HE EAT CHICKEN (that he loved yesterday).

                        1. re: hyacinthgirl

                          See, I'm meaner than you. If he won't eat the chicken (that was fine yesterday, I hear you on that one), he doesn't eat. I do NOT offer alternatives, at home or while out. If he's going to whine about it and be a shit, we will just leave. The act of packing up stuff like we're leaving can act instantly to make him shut up and eat his chicken, and if it doesn't, we're out of there, because if you can't stop behaving like a chimp, we're gone. Yes, I am that mom.

                          1. re: rockandroller1

                            And that was my Mom (and Dad). We (older brother, younger sister, and I) ate what was put in front of us. And we learned very quickly that it didn't make either parent happy if we had to leave because we threw a tantrum.

                            1. re: rockandroller1

                              I'm "mean" at home in the same way that you've stated and to be honest, we're limiting our times eating out right now because he is going through this phase and we don't want to be firm at home and weak while out. However, we've had a few situations lately where just leaving didn't seem to be the best option for the situation. For instance, while this wasn't a restaurant, we were at a Passover seder last night, hosted by a friend and he suddenly refused all of the food he normally loved. There was no place in the small house we could have removed him to and it was cold outside, so our options would have been to leave entirely, abandoning friends and family, let him whine through the seder and disrupt everyone or give him some matzoh to shut him up. I went with the matzoh. I don't know if it was the right choice, I don't feel great about giving in to that behavoir ever, but, it's what I did.

                              1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                I get that. You have to be a little flexible and it sounds like that's when I would have pulled out my package of annie's bunnies from the diaper bag.

                                1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                  The baby is only 20 months right? Sometimes you just have to comfort them:)@20 months they are not cognitively able to reason things out they operate on impulse to a great extent. To me it sounds like you are doing a really good job with him by taking him with you out and about so he can see the world.Just remember hyacinth when the going gets tough have a glass or two of good wine:)

                                  1. re: Lillipop

                                    If I weren't currently incubating #2, I'd be all over the wine suggestion :)

                                    1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                      Oh My Goodness! Congratulations on that:)

                                      1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                        Oh, bother, I'll just have to drink your share for you :)

                                    2. re: hyacinthgirl

                                      HG...cut the kid some slack...it was a holiday..

                                      Be patient, you are on the right track....Read on..
                                      When my daughters were about 3 and 5 we were invited to a friend of my father's Seder...the friend said we don't eat until everyone is here...we were on time @ 6:30, so we fed them a little something before ,at home, because their normal dinner time was about 6PM....The friend's son showed up @ 8PM..My father's friend had no grandchildren and mine were the only little ones out of 14 persons...the son and the friend said let's start the Seder..it was about 8:15....my wife and stepmom took my girls in the kitchen and fed them just before the late son arrived...
                                      Honestly, my girls were little angels, and then asked , daddy why didn't you eat anything...I told that I needed a timeout and had to leave (8:30)...I munched on a piece of matzoh all the way home!

                                      1. re: melpy

                                        It's a lot of work. What are your credentials? :)

                                2. Food like Cheerios and grapes - yes
                                  McDonalds Happy Meal - no

                                  You bring a small something to tide them over. You do not bring a entire meal for them. Exception being kids who still eat puréed baby food. My kids eat the same food we eat - they don't get special kids meals like nuggets and grilled cheese while we eat grilled salmon or enchiladas.

                                  1. I see the baggie of cheerios or the applesauce as a service to the other people in the restaurant as well - a contented child is much nicer to be around.

                                    1. Small snacks like a small cracker or two and maybe a few grapes with a sippie cup with water or juice seems rational for a 20 month old.I have seen people dining with children who were just eating a bit of their parents meal which is fine considering the huge portions served in many restaurants and the fact that small children do not consume very big portions.Parents do that all of the time here in California...they share the meal with the kids.

                                      1. I wish the family that had the looong birthday party for the grandfather at my favorite thai restaurant had done this. Two kids were cooped up way too long and kept running back and forth almost taking out an elderly gentleman who was having trouble walking with a cane.
                                        Good for you for being so considerate. As a child I ate out far more often than I would have liked. We dined at places that offered rolls and small plates of celery, carrots and radishes. I would get so hungry that I would even eat the radishes although they seemed really hot to me.
                                        My mom always brought coloring books and picture books so I wouldn't get bored and restless. A short walk around the exterior attended by an adult is a good idea too.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: givemecarbs

                                          I remember those vegetable garnish plates, they were my favorite part of eating out.
                                          We bring books and quiet toys too, they hold his attention 50% of the time. In another year, they should work better, fingers crossed.

                                        2. Every kid is different. I never brought outside food into a restaurant. When mine was a toddler, I sometimes fed him at home first before we went out to eat, especially if he was really hungry, and then fed him tastes from our plates at the restaurant. Now that he is older, we order for him as soon as we sit down and have his meal come early, since he is such a slow eater that we can finish our salads and main meal and he is still eating.

                                          1. I recall that Calvin Trilling would take his (then young) daughter Abigail to a wide variety of New York restaurants. She would try anything, but always brought along a bagel, 'just in case'. I can't see anything wrong with this. (She is reported to now be an adventurous and discriminating adult eater.)

                                            1. I agree with what I think is the majority. We have an 11 month old and try to do the same as you- we take him to family-friendly restaurants during off times (Linner is a big hit with us on weekends- the 3:00 lunch/dinner meal). I feed him ahead of time and give him some snacks I brought and a sippy cup while we eat our meal (yum yum teething crackers and the like). Those are more to keep him entertained though. As he gets older (and more teeth) we will order him food from the menu, but now, with his limited chewing ability- it is too much trouble to try to make a restaurant meal work for him. So I bring a few crackers and have never had anyone even look at us twice- but again, we always go to family friendly places.

                                              1. My daughter is 4 and we take her out to eat often -- have since she was a tiny one and we lived in NYC (now in the suburbs). I always have some food with us when we leave the house, going to a restaurant or otherwise. We are adventurous eaters and she's a good eater, but not yet the adventursome diner that I hope she'll grow into. She is usually not fond of foods mixed together or sauced.

                                                I almost always order something for her at restaurants, usually off of the adult menu in smaller size if they will accomodate a half size order, but often if not, I'll take the full size and take home the leftovers. sometimes they will create a plainer version of a dish they offer -- like a pasta with grilled chicken, dressed with just garlic and oil, vs. whatever other sauce and accoutrements might otherwise adorn the dish (sundried tomatoes, broccoli rabe, etc.). for the most part, restaurants are accomodating. She's generally very well behaved and likes to order for herself, which some find amusing. And we tip well, recognizing the added burden of special orders, etc.

                                                However, I nearly always supplement the restaurant's offerings with vegetables and sometimes fruit, as I prefer her to eat in a much more balanced way than most restaurant menus tend to lean. For example, to our local pizza/Italian place, I will often bring a small snack size baggie sof steamed green beans and carrot sticks/celery sticks, etc. or a cut up pear. She will occasionally get the chicken tenders from a kids menu, but i'm not keen on her having the inevitable mountain of fries that always come with (if the restaurant has side dishes of steamed broccoli, snowpeas, etc., I'll always order those. too often they don't).

                                                Like many of the other posters, we also have quiet activities for before the meal arrives. and we always put in her order first to minimize her waiting time -- she's also a very slow eater.

                                                I don't think this is an etiquette issue. I think it's being a responsible parent and considerate fellow diner.

                                                1. In general, I agree with the commenters who say it's not a problem. However, I would encouraging going in the direction of the Cheerios, applesauce, and less fragrant items like bananas.

                                                  1. I think bring food for small ones is not only appropriate, but also being a good dining citizen. I would make sure, however, that it is food brought from home and not something obviously purchased at another eatery (like McDonalds).

                                                    My son & DIL have 4 kids, ages 7 & under (youngest is 16 months). My DIL goes well-prepared with a variety of food items and coloring books/crayons, but also makes sure she orders the kids' food first. They limit their choice of restaurants to a few tried-and-true places that are more family friendly. The tip is generous and a good bit of cleaning up is done before they leave. We are all going to a buffet for an early Easter Dinner, a format that seems to be more conducive than most to dining with kids that age. There will be enough adults so that each child will have a "handler" to help them through the buffet and to assist at the table. I will be carrying Advil in my purse.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: PattiCakes

                                                      We're doing a late Easter brunch. The ratio is 5 adults to 1 baby and the adults will mostly be the coo-ing, adoring, can not wait to see the baby types, which means for once, my only job will be making sure no one tries to slip him candy or cake!

                                                    2. I do...for my almost 6 year old. I know a lot of people say this is way too old for food from home, but he is gluten free and picky. Often, there is simply nothing he can eat. So if a gluten free muffin, an apple, and some pretzels make him a good dining companion, so be it. If there's anything at the restaurant appropriate for him, I'll order it as a side. Usually, rice or plain fruit.

                                                      The three year old will eat anything and everything, so I don't bring anything special. Maybe cheerios for before the meal comes.

                                                      Let me add that I'm walking proof that it's really not parenting that makes a picky eater. Kid 2 = junior chowhound, has yet to meet a food he won't try. Kid 1 = the pickiest thing you can imagine. I didn't raise them differently, but kid 1 has celiac so before he was diagnosed learned to associate food with discomfort :( Now, he's learned to be scared of new foods "in case they have gluten". It's tough.

                                                      1. Depends on the age, really. Typically, I did not. Babies, sure, bring their baby food. I read here once a couple brought a muffin from the outside to a breakfast spot on Cape and was asked to put it away. They were incensed. Not sure if restaurants have some liability about outside food. There is a beach bar where I live and the owners frown upon folks who bring outside food. I get that.

                                                        After my daughter started eating solid food, I always found something she would eat, rice, fruit, pasta. I also fed her before hand often and brought books and a little toy. The secret was, my kid started fine dining at at 3 weeks. At 5 months I brought her to the defunct Lantana in Bermuda where Columbus's descendants were dining for the Quincentennial. She was in her carrier on the floor by my side napping and cooing politely.

                                                        The easy solution is ti call and ask before reserving to be sure. It's nice you are being considerate.

                                                        Funny recall, whenever we were done eating at an Indian restaurant, I'd be on the floor picking up the massive amount of rice on the rug. I even asked for a vacume cleaner. Rice flew when my then toddler ate Indian food. Memories...she now is almost 21 and is quite the Chowhound.

                                                        1. When I was raising my kids, I was tempted but my husband had a very specific opinion about this: if we're eating out as a family, why are we bringing food along? If they aren't ready to join us, let's make other plans. And other plans we did (picnics, boardwalk lunches, family-friendly places) until the bunch were ready for a more adult menu.

                                                          Now, when my kids were with friends and their family or members of our extended family I know this rule didn't always apply-but it was their meal date to deal with as they saw fit.

                                                          Of course, eating out as a family was not treated like a weekly thing when my children were small; we saved those meals for celebrations. We ate at home probably 75% of the time until their taste buds and patience for sitting improved too.

                                                          1. I have taken snacks and amusements for my children as long as I can remember. Our extended family eats out A LOT, and children are always in attendance. But the children are also expected to be well behaved. We took books and snacks and toys along, until the girls were well beyond primary school. I think my eldest also took her book and knitting to her younger sister's high school graduation ceremony.

                                                            1. I don't have any kids, but definitely waitressed a few years ago during college breaks. I love kids, and had ZERO problems with parents bringing in food for their little kiddos, probably until 3ish? I think everyone needs to start somewhere, although starting with an earlier 4pm dinner was much better than at the 6:30 peak of the dinner rush. It gave me much more time to be accommodating, bring extra napkins, rush kids' food through even faster, etc. The big things I appreciated were if parents brought those disposable plastic table mats (it's like a large sticky mat) that made my clean up later soooooo much easier, and tipped a bit extra because I worked much harder for tables with little ones to try to make everything go super smoothly. I think if you child is still in the high chair/booster seat age range, it is perfectly appropriate to bring your own food and it makes things easier for everyone. If your kid is in the preschool range, or just having a bad day and is cranky for food asap, as the waitress I would always try to atleast bring bread or even saltine crackers since that ws the fastest thing I could grab to prevent a meltdown.
                                                              I did have a few people come in who expected me to heat their baby's gerber entree correctly in the kitchen, which I thought was pushing it (those restaurant micros are much higher powered than your home micro too- I had no idea what the correlation was, and what if it's too hot for the baby?). However I did not mind bringing an extra mug of boiling hot water to the table so the parents could heat the baby's bottle correctly. Asking upfront for extra napkins and any kind of wet-wipes, damp napkins, etc is always a great thing too. Babies make messes, that's just part of life, but having extra napkins on hand so I don't have to stop in the middle of everything else everytime you have a spill is awesome.
                                                              Also, if you do want your baby to start eating a combination of restaurant food and stuff from home, most restaurants can serve something as a small *plain* side. Specify plain for kids at first, there are so many seasonings, butters, etc that are added you won't even think about, even if it is supposed to be 'just steamed broccoli'.
                                                              Sorry for the long post, that just my two cents.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: ponygirl87

                                                                +1 excellent perspective....will remember your points...

                                                                1. Servers I know don't take issue with the snacks for a kid but they wince at the sight of cheerios because of the mess they leave.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: marcia

                                                                    It's really not bad if parents bring those 'stick on' table placemats.

                                                                  2. This is a really interesting thread because there are so many thoughts on the subject. In my own experiences, well, I nursed my children till they were three years old. (Ever see that Luv's commercial with the mom nursing in the restaurant--I love that--I could relate--lol).
                                                                    That being said, I did not bring any food into restaurants. I don't think there is anything wrong with bringing some sort of snack/finger foods. When the appropriate time came, my kids were very adventerous eaters and would try anything so there was never an issue. Good question!

                                                                    1. My grandson went from a relisher at 20 months, to a thrower here at 22 months. My daughter, him and I, do a lunch out, each week. I'm believing his behavoir is temporary to his current age. (so hoping!) So when his food flies off the table on to the floor, I make sure my tip at meal conclusion will bless the server and all else who made our meal a pleasant occasion.

                                                                      1. I'm with a lot of the others on here - we always tried to go during less-intrusive times (someone mentioned Linner - around 2:30 or 3) and brought "quiet" food, that is, food to keep him occupied. As a former server, cheerios and crackers were usually out because of the crumbs, but raisins, etc. were common. We usually gave him tastes off our plate, and now that he's older, we usually try to order something for him, whether it's a glass of milk or a side of baked potato, just to put something on the check. He is another diner, after all - though sometimes we simply give him half of our food and then overtip to compensate.