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Dining out with toddlers

We like to dine out alone, but sometimes it's just not possible. Once in a while, we take out our toddler out with us for lunch or an early dinner.

I'm curious-
What's acceptable to request at a restaurant? (I like to ask for a "to go" cup with water and a straw-- a friend said that's totally out of line)

Toys- can I bring them? (Crayons & paper, finger puppet)

Tipping...what's expected?

Not looking to start any arguments... Just opinions from those who have been there.

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  1. I don't know about the other two questions, but as far as bringing toys, as long as they're not being flung around the room, blocking the aisles, making noise or in some way interfering with other patrons or the staff, I'd think any restaurant wouldn't care what you brought, as long as it helped keep the toddler from crying or acting up.

    1. We take our toddler to restaurants occasionally and my experience is:

      We try to bring a sippy cup with us, so we don't have to request anything extra from the restaurant.

      My opinion is that toys are fine, as long as they're not loud or being thrown- anything that keeps a toddler quiet and occupied gets a thumbs up.

      Tipping- we tip as we usually would, though we will increase it if there is any additional mess created by our toddler. That said, I always clean the table and floor to my best ability before we leave.

      8 Replies
      1. re: hyacinthgirl

        Thanks. She doesn't drink from a sippy cup, otherwise I'd bring it

        One place we go to (alone and with toddler) is so accommodating. They'll prepare anything, as long as the ingredients are on the menu. They try to bring toddler's food first, so she doesn't get cranky.

        1. re: cheesecake17

          How about bringing a plastic cup-and-straw combo, then? I guess it really depends on what kind of places you're going to -- I wouldn't assume that all the restaurants I patronize have a to-go cup.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Great idea. I have to remember to keep a few cups and straws in the car.

          2. re: cheesecake17

            Really, really hate when they bring the toddler's food first. Then they're done and want to leave NOW when your food arrives. I think it's well-intentioned but a bad idea.

            1. re: rockandroller1

              I think it depends on the toddler (which makes it impossible for the restaurant to guess). Some kids get bored once they've eaten. Some get cranky if they have to wait too long but are saints once they're full.
              The best restaurant practice would be to ask the parents first, "would you like the child's food first?"

              1. re: rockandroller1

                The key is do it in stages. We timed it so we were all eating at the same time, just different courses. It paced the meal better and as we aren't dessert/coffee people it worked out well.

                I do agree though this should be the parents decision, not the servers.

                1. re: rockandroller1

                  I'm thinking of one place in particular. They bring her food while we have soup or an appetizer. When we get our food, the waitress brings out a small plate of orange slices or melon for her.

              2. We try to dine out with our 21 month old once a month or so for practice for her, so she remembers how to behave in restaurants, and to keep us familiar with dealing with her dining out. She has a nut allergy so I need the practice being vigilant about it.

                I always bring her "lunch bag" with us, containing a big, a sippy cup with water, toddler utensils and plate (not always depending on the place), some sliced up fruit, crackers, applesauce, and crayons/paper. In my purse there tends to be a book or two. We have never had complaints from restaurant staff about us bringing any of these items. She loves to people watch so that is great entertainment. The snacks are for while we are waiting for our meal, or if she's having a picky moment.
                I just personally like to be prepared with what I know she will need so I don't have to hope the place has it. I've watched friends try to wing it and ask for stuff that a restaurant doesn't have and it's not pretty.

                We always order her something. Staff tend to overlook my buffet when she is a "paying" customer. The only place we don't order her anything is the local under 5s are free for brunch.

                We tend to tip around 20% with her.

                1 Reply
                1. re: autumm

                  Good point, we always order something for our 22 month old too. Once or twice his meal has been more expensive than ours.

                2. I don't have a toddler but recently dined with one. The restaurant brought her drink in a "to-go" cup with a straw and lid and it saved many a potential spill. It is NOT out of line - it's a very clever idea that will save laps!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: JerryMe

                    Yep, that's exactly what I like to ask for. Daughter get a "big girl" cup and there's no spilling either

                  2. My opinion:

                    You can bring anything that's quiet and unobtrusive -- certainly crayons and paper, I think small toys would be fine too.

                    You can request anything that the restaurant would normally have and provide to its customers. I think a to go cup is totally fine.

                    If there is any kind of mess or disruption whatsoever (and there's usually at least a little), we tip around 30% and call it the "toddler tax."

                    And it sounds like you already know one of the key rules of dining with little kids -- eat at appropriate times and places. (For instance, unless the restaurant is known to be kid-friendly and not a date-type place, no kids in restaurants after 7 p.m.) And of course, have an escape plan if the kid starts acting up.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Pia

                      Ditto what Pia said. I'm guessing the friend of yours who made the remark about a to go cup must not have children or not go out with them. Most kid friendly restaurants serve a toddlers drinks in a colorful plastic to go cup to begin with. They expect you to take the cup.

                      1. re: Pia

                        Reminds me...we were once at a restaurant, daughter needed a diaper change. On the way back to the table, she tripped and bumped her chin. Lots of crying and we decided to end the meal. Husband quickly found the waitress and asked that our meals be wrapped up before being served, as we had to leave. She gave him a dirty look...and he said its bc of personal issues and her tip was already on the table. (She didn't see that dd fell)

                      2. I agree with others - and I love the term "toddler tax" to describe the increased tip for increased mess. :) My almost-3-yo is a pro at restaurant meals, but we time them so that our food is on the table at his usual mealtimes - so, no 7pm dinner reservations.

                        Re. what's acceptable to request: At most places, I have no problem asking a lot of questions or making simple requests - no powdered sugar on the pancakes, make the quesadilla with orange Cheddar rather than white and leave out the peppers, etc. I have also successfully gotten steamed veggies instead of fries with kids meals! I also have no issues ordering him an appetizer as his meal, especially since kids' menus are often boring and/or unhealthy.

                        IMO, asking for a to-go cup is fine - especially since you're asking to save them the hassle of cleaning up broken glass or a big spill! - but I usually bring a cup or a milk box if I'm not sure if they will have plastic cups (or white milk). If DH and I are likely to order an appetizer DS won't eat, then I bring him something like a fruit cup.

                        Oh, and I much prefer when our server asks if we want DS's food to come out first or with ours, so that we can say no! If he eats first, then he gets bored and antsy, so DH and I have a miserable meal. :o

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: truman

                          So, plain pasta with sauce on the side is not outrageous? (If the restaurant serves pasta marinara)

                          1. re: cheesecake17

                            Not at all. If it wouldn't be outragenous for an adult to ask for a sauce (or dressing) on the side, then it shouldn't be outrageous for a kid/parent to ask for it.

                        2. I havea 3 year old (and a 7 year old but he is in a different eating out category now), and I do not think there is anything wrong with asking for a to go cup and lid for your daughter. We usually bring a sippy, but sometimes we forget - and if they have to go containers its not an inconvenience for them to bring you one (no more than if you asked for your leftovers to take home). One Japanese restaurant we frequent uses their to go soup containers and lids (with a cut hole) for kids drinks without us even asking. I also think any quiet toy is fine. Unless its a family-oriented place, we try to dine out at early hours with our kids and we do tip extra (25-30%) if the kids haved been messy but not if they have been neat.

                          1. Find it admirable that you were fully prepared to just take your food to-go when the fall and tears happened. Think children really NEED to know how to act when eating out, even if at a fast food place.

                            1. "(I like to ask for a "to go" cup with water and a straw-- a friend said that's totally out of line)"

                              Why does your friend think this is out of line? I never had kids and will admit that I sometimes cringe when seated near them in a restaurant but even I think this is a perfectly reasonable request.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: ttoommyy

                                Oh, I cringe too, if I'm out alone!!

                                Friend feels like its "above and beyond" what a bus person/ waiter should be doing.

                                1. re: cheesecake17

                                  As an ex-waiter, that is not true at all. If the restaurant has the cups, i'm sure they will be more tha happy to give you one.

                              2. I have a 5 year old and an almost 1 year old. I have no issue with asking for a "child friendly cup" for my big girl, even though she most likely could handle a regular glass. ( We do give her one at home). Baby hasn't grasped how to drink from from a straw yet, but if she could, I;d ask! for 2.
                                I always come with my own stuff for Baby- noiseless toys, plastic table-topper to cover her spot on the table, sippy cup, etc...I try not ask for "crazy things" from the wait staff or kitchen. But sometimes, sh%t happens.
                                Most places, including very nice places in our area, are very gracious and helpful. And I am always the 1st to get down and clean the floor under Baby's highchair. To me, that's not anybody's "job" if its awful down there.
                                We tip generously, Kids are a handful no matter how well behaved they are.

                                1. We kept a "dining out" bag in our car. In it was a plastic cup/straw or sippy cup, board books, crayons/coloring book and a few quiet toys like etch a sketch, wooden puzzles, small cars. These books/toys only came out in restaraunts so it kept them special.

                                  We never brought our own food but he was a great eater from day one and ate pretty much anything. The key was he ate his dinner while we hads apps and his dessert when we had our entrees.

                                  We always tipped 20% and if he made a bigger mess than usual, one that was hard for us to clean up we would give the busser and extra $5-10 as they usually got stuck with clean up.

                                  During the height of the toddler years we became regulars at a couple of places and that really helped. They got to know us and we always got great service. They knew we were good customers and were happy to accommodate our requests.

                                  1. Folks, we've had to remove a couple of posts about whether children belong in restaurants at all. That's not really on topic for the thread and not helpful to the original poster. If you have on topic suggestions. we'd love to have them.

                                    1. In addition to the helpful advice you've already received, here's a previous thread that has lots of great tips: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/812912

                                      1. What's acceptable to request at a restaurant?

                                        Any cup provided by the restaurant that could be squeezed, crushed, torn or otherwise "messed" with was trouble for us, our son played with them too much and I didn't want to risk a spill. I always asked for a small rocks glass or coffee cup for his liquid.

                                        I never had any push back for simple modifications to dishes such as "please go light on the sauce."

                                        Toys- can I bring them? (Crayons & paper, finger puppet)

                                        Sure. Keep them small, few in number and quiet.

                                        Tipping...what's expected?

                                        Because I always policed our area and left it as I found it, I didn't think an extra tip was necessary just because someone in the party was smaller. However, I have left very nice tips for servers who went the extra mile to do something special (like orange slices for our son) that made our experience nice.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: cleobeach

                                          My parents take my toddler to a nearby casual bar/grille place quite often. The waitress there always makes a little plate of garnishes that she can easily grab and brings it over as a little appetizer plate for my son as they sit down. It usually has orange slices, crackers and a few slices of cheese. We've never asked for it, but I always thought that was a really sweet extra-mile gesture and I know they "thank-tip" her for it.

                                        2. The best thing to do is start restaurant behavior at home. Observe how long he/she can sit, then gradually do what you need to do to lengthen that time. Toys? Bring them. Special cup? Bring it. It's also fine to bring a few cheerios or whatever in a plastic bag. The server knows it's only two people ordering food. And tip really well, even if your toddler is better behaved than the people at the next table, especially if you like the restaurant and want to go back.

                                          Oh, and as your child grows, make sure your rules for behavior are the same for home and restaurant. No running around, inside voices, etc.

                                          1. Take your own sippy cup.

                                            Toys are OK if they are small, don't make noise, and don't have parts that will litter the floor.

                                            Tip as you normally would.

                                            I'm sure I don't need to tell you to not bother if the kid is tired, to time the outing correctly for hungry tummies, and to include the little person in the table conversation.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: sandylc

                                              She doesn't drink out of a sippy.
                                              When the waiter brings our glassss with water, she wants one too. That's why I brought up the straw/cup thing.

                                              We met definitely time our meals to her schedule!

                                              1. re: cheesecake17

                                                Yeah, I saw that about the sippy cup after I posted!

                                                You, know, we never once had to leave a restaurant early with my son. I don't know if maybe we were just lucky, or if we were very talented parents, ha.

                                                I do know that we told him how we expected him to act, we treated him with respect by including him at the table, and he just knew early on that things like screaming were not done, period. Ever. OK, maybe if he was on fire.

                                            2. My own offspring are now well into their 20s, but we did eat out often when they were toddlers.
                                              Perhaps the friend who thought a "to go" cup was out of line is the sort (such as myself) who would take her own travel cup for coffee on the run. Might I recommend that you bring your own cup and straw.
                                              Toys: noiseless and not bouncy, are totally fine. My DD still travels EVERYwhere with a book, notebook and pen, in her handbag.
                                              Tipping = 20%, with extra if we made a mess.
                                              We had "family dinner" at a restaurant, on average, weekly. The girls learned what was expected of them when eating out (restaurant or someone's home), and we parents also enjoyed a night out.
                                              Memorable meal - DD was making origami animals at brunch, and the server requested a menagerie as her tip. Of course we also left cash, but the server's request made an impression on DD.

                                              1. Looks like you have it right, go early, a to go cup is fine but, your toddler may be more comfortable with their own sippy cup, toys, games, crayons etc yes, tipping is at your discretion.

                                                1. Don't know what your friend has against 'to go' cups and straws. It is perfectly find and often will avoid spillages.

                                                  Crayons are fine often places have kids menus to color and even provide crayons. Like the idea of the finger puppets. Bring along an Ipad or phone with the volume turned down.

                                                  Find it is always best leave a little extra tip. Because as much as you try the table and surrounding area might require a little extra clean up from the staff.

                                                  1. My suggestion is to make sure that you realize that sometimes, dining out just won't work, and be ready to have one of you pack up the kid and wait in the car while the other settles the bill/asks for the food to packed to go, etc. It's just not fair to other diners to put up with your fussy kid.

                                                    Having said that, if the restaurant does to-go orders, I always order a drink for my child in a to-go cup. We kept 'special' crayons and coloring sheets in the car for our kids that came out as a treat when we dined out.

                                                    One of our other strategies was to bring the children already fed, then just order dessert for them when we ordered our entree. We didn't need to deal with feeding him, worrying about getting him to eat, etc. and could enjoy our own meal.

                                                    We traveled a lot with our kids and had a few meals with one of us sitting in the car with the cranky toddler while the other closed out the tab. Sometimes, it is just not going to work out.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: jeanmarieok

                                                      abso-freaking-lutely. i think the reason mine is so well behaved other than going so frequently is that we don't put up with nonsense (understanding that sometimes a 3 year old is just a 3 year old and i have to deal with craziness every so often). we will pack up and absolutely leave in the middle of a meal.

                                                      i'm not talking just fussy, either. if he's in a rambunctious mood, diners needn't be subjected to that. it's not fair to him, either. so yes, sometimes it just doesn't work out.

                                                      1. re: jeanmarieok

                                                        We've left before the food arrived, and have had barely eaten entrees packs up. Not going to have others (or myself!) be subjected to a screaming toddler

                                                      2. i dine out with my three year old several times a week. and have been since forever. last night was almost a 2 hour meal at legal's harborside. he had chowder, rolls, pasta, the egg and cukes from the crab stuffed avocado and a water.

                                                        now we are down to no toys, he drinks from a cup at the resto that i ask them to fill only half way. and no ipad/iphone except in the most dire of situations, usually when there is a service snafu.

                                                        before we got to this stage, we brought books and/or crayons and/or a few quiet age appropriate toys. we also brought our own sippy/bottle that i would ask to be filled with water/milk when it became age appropriate. i also brought a few cheerios to keep him occupied til the food came when he was ready for table food. i hated when they brought the kid food out first.

                                                        and i'm an over tipper by nature, and i clean up after my kid. but if the server was especially nice to us, i over over tip.

                                                        1. Bring toddler sized utensils. Most restaurants have only large forks which are difficult to handle for a small child.

                                                          1. When I take my kids out to eat (ages 2 and 4), I break out as many activities I can to keep them at the table! I have a special "dine-out stash" I bring with us. Crayons, coloring books, action figures, board books, little finger puppets, etc. The only thing I refuse to do is bring a portable DVD player or a portable game system.I know it would keep them quiet, but I want them to be a part of the family when we eat.

                                                            To avoid the uncomfortable glares of waitstaff, I usually bring a garbage bag or a big plastic bag that I can place directly under my 2 year old's chair, to catch all the stuff that comes tumbling off the table. Most kid-friendly places don't mind, but I try to be extra considerate -- my little guy is right in the middle of his throwing stage!