Even though I kind of hate the word “foodie” – I consider my husband and I to be just that. We live in a city with an absolutely amazing culinary scene, and while we certainly aren’t out to eat every night, we do like to indulge and take advantage of what’s around us. We moved here (to Seattle) when I was pregnant, and enjoyed many dinners out and picnics in the park. With a baby on the way, we were determined to continue to enjoy our city’s fare, even though we knew it would mean certain things would have to change.
Cullen is almost two now, and has enjoyed everything from Ethiopian injera to Thai rice noodles and beyond. Not all our meals have been successful, and we’ve definitely learned some lessons along the way. The biggest takeaway from all our dining out has been to simply come prepared. You can’t always control a toddler’s emotions or mood, but you can definitely do some things to help steer it in the right direction.
And while reading through these tips might make it seem like dining out with our little guy is a lot of work, it’s actually usually a lot of fun. Just tonight we all shared two big pizzas, and everyone left happy, smiling, and covered in tomato sauce.
Click to check out ten tips for dining out with toddlers, below!
Restaurant tips with toddlers! 1 of 11
There is no reason your family can't continue to enjoy a nice meal out after it expands to include little people. It just takes a bit of planning and prep to ensure a peaceful dining experience for all parties involved. Here are some tips we've learned after two years of dining in and around Seattle with our toddler!
Choose time of day wisely 2 of 11
You know your toddler best, and this includes knowing their best time of day. For my son, this is morning, which means that most of our dining out with him is for breakfast. Taking a toddler into a busy restaurant can often feel like dining with a ticking time bomb, so better to set yourself up for success by heading out at the time of day that bomb is least likely to go off. Bonus - if your family is a bunch of early birds like mine, you can often beat any wait and crowd by heading out first thing in the morning. We are typically sitting down to breakfast by 8am on weekends, and almost all of the tables surrounding us are other families with young kids, which makes the environment that much easier to navigate. Taking your toddler out to dinner at 7:00pm on a Friday night is a recipe for disaster. Plan accordingly!
If possible, head outdoors 3 of 11
We always have our best success with Cullen when we can dine outside. This works for a number of reasons. First off, noise is much easier to manage outdoors. Of course you still don't want your toddler screaming like a maniac, but an outdoor patio tends to have plenty of other background and street noise, and is rarely as quiet as an indoor dining room. Also, mess! For some reason I feel less guilty about food being flung onto concrete than onto sleek marble tile or - shudder - carpet. Outdoor tables tend to be less fancy, easier to clean, and less fussy in general. Lastly, distractions! One of my favorite places to take Cullen out to lunch is this bagel place in Seattle that has an outdoor patio sitting right above a busy street. He is thoroughly entertained by the garbage trucks, duck boats full of tourists, and bike commuters whizzing by, and I am able to enjoy my soup one slurp at a time.
Offer new distractions and entertainment 4 of 11
Cullen loves anything new. Whether it's at home, in the car, or out at a restaurant -- offering the same old stuff gets boring and repetitive, and he loses interest quickly. Now I'm not suggesting you buy a new toy every week, but rather that you make something out of nothing. Some of our favorite restaurant tricks are:
- Letting him (carefully) drink out of a big boy cup
- Coloring with crayons
- Filling up cups with things like sugar packets, straw wrappers, etc.
- Identifying colors around the room or on the table
Basically anything to keep him entertained and occupied, rather than bored and disruptive.
Bring all your own feeding tools 5 of 11
Preparation is key, as I'm sure you've picked up by now. Not only do I try to come prepared with an army of snack options, I also make sure I have a few key feeding supplies. My diaper bag is always stocked with at least one bib, our wipe-able place mat, a toddler fork and spoon, and plenty of baby wipes for cleaning up spills and sticky fingers. Some of our favorite restaurants here in Seattle are super kid-friendly, and actually bring plastic plates and cups and such to the table . But more often than not we need to be prepared with our own gear, and it's easiest to just keep it in the diaper bag for spontaneous meals out and about.
Clean up your mess 6 of 11
Whether you are at home, in a park at a picnic table, or at a fancy restaurant in town -- mess happens. I don't expect my toddler to have perfect table manners yet, and I try to foster and encourage his independence by letting him do things like use his own utensils, no matter how messy the outcome. It's no big deal if your kid makes a big mess at dinner, but make sure you clean it up. The best way to encourage more restaurants and establishments to be courteous to families is to be courteous yourself. If your child throws food all over the floor, try to scoop it up or at least contain it to a small area with your napkin. You don't have to bus your own table or anything, but at least consolidate your trash and wipe off the excess goop on the highchair.
Leave a nice tip 7 of 11
I have to imagine that tables with high chairs are not exactly considered to be the ideal clientele for restaurant staff. We have had so many wonderful servers and other restaurant employees who go above and beyond to entertain, feed, and make our family feel welcome. It is always nice to be surprised with pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse or fruit cups cut up into tiny bite sized pieces. We always try to be respectful and aware of how much work and care goes into this, and tip accordingly.
Order something you can share 8 of 11
I have this theory that my husband intentionally orders things that are too spicy, too flavorful, or too full of bell pepper (our son is allergic) when we go out to eat so that he doesn't have to share his food. He denies this wholeheartedly, but I'm onto his game. Regardless, one thing I've learned in dining out a lot with Cullen is that it's important that I order something I can share. I always either bring or order his own meal too, but inevitably he often wants whatever mom or dad is having instead. Be prepared to share!
Be prepared with snacks 9 of 11
We've dined enough with Cullen to have a good sense of what he will or won't eat, but he never ceases to surprise me. Any time we go out, I come fully prepared for him to eat solely from my diaper bag. Sometimes restaurants end up having nothing that is friendly, and other times he just refuses to eat what's on his plate. But snacks are essential for getting through the meal, so I always come prepared. Pouches, crackers, fruit strips, raisins, cereal, and more -- I make sure I have plenty in case the food takes longer than expected or any other delay happens. A hungry toddler with no snacks available is a scary scene!
Set realistic expectations 10 of 11
I think this is one of the most important aspects of dining out with young kids -- you have to be realistic. You know better than to try to take a toddler into a fine dining restaurant, or squeeze in a lunch even though it's nap time. Don't push it. Also, you need to be willing to leave if things get hairy. We are probably overly aware of being sensitive to diners around us. I refuse to ruin another person's meal if Cullen is melting down. Most of our meals go well, but when they don't, one of us is always prepared to scoop Cullen out of his highchair and walk around outside until the other one has time to box up and pay for our food. Like I said, this isn't common, but it has happened, and it's just part of being a parent.
Savor your child-free date nights 11 of 11
On the rare occasion that you do get the opportunity to dine out sans-toddler, live it UP. Order something spicy and expensive. Wear something impractical and carry nothing but a credit card and cell phone (in case the babysitter calls, of course). Go somewhere where the wait is sixty minutes and then sip a fancy drink in the bar while you wait. And the next morning, get up when your toddler-alarm goes off, pack up your big diaper bag with snacks and bibs, venture out to your favorite kid-friendly breakfast joint, and scarf down your pancakes as quickly as possible.