Tips for Dining Out with Toddlers

young boy eating spaghetti

Like many families, we eat out a few times a week. I like to cook but it’s still always nice to skip the work of a home-cooked meal. But we’re finding that eating at even a fast-casual restaurant can be tricky and not very enjoyable with a toddler!

My little girl loves to eat, but she’s not such a fan of sitting in a high chair. And she can get out of those restaurant high chairs in an instant: one minute she’s sitting down, the next she’s standing up and waving her hands in the air like she has no idea she’s a head-plant waiting to happen. Holding her on my lap isn’t a better option, unless I want tiny hands foraging in my salad or worse, knocking over every cup in sight. And since she’d rather be moving than sitting, she tends to be a wiggly, squirmy dining companion. If she can, she’ll take off crawling across the restaurant (this is especially distressing because she likes to eat off of the floor!).

Still, we’re not willing to give up and skip our restaurant meals just yet! After all, she hasn’t started that uncontrollable-screaming-like-a-banshee thing that most toddlers seem to adopt at some point. Instead, we’ve found these little tricks can help make the difference between a calm and enjoyable meal and a frantic, disastrous one.

  • Bring our own high chair: As I mentioned, our little girl won’t stay in any seat that only has a lap belt. So we bring our own high chair with us. We have one of those chairs that can be clamped to any table.  It’s super portable and has a harness that won’t quit.
  • Go casual: We seek out restaurants where you order at the counter, rather than ordering from a server. It’s a limiting guideline: we tend to eat at a lot of burger places, Mexican grills, and casual cafes, so we’re not really indulging our foodie sides. But fast-casual dining is a parent’s best friend, because you are free to pack up and leave at the first sign of a tantrum!
  • Bring distractions: We stash small toys and snacks in the diaper bag to pull out whenever we need to occupy her for a few more mouthfuls (err, minutes).
  • Pack tidy meals: Those squeezy baby-food pouches are my go-to for feeding our girl when we’re out. Since she doesn’t get them at home, she thinks they’re a treat (even when it’s the spinach-pear-green peas flavor) so she’ll usually settle down long enough to suck it up. Don’t forget the bib!
  • Time it: It’s never a good idea to take out a tired toddler, no matter where you’re going. We usually go out to lunch, not dinner, when our toddler is fresh from her nap.
  • Pick a kid-friendly restaurant: We’re lucky where we live (Seattle) to have a number of restaurants with play areas, so the kids can play while the parents eat.
  • See the signs: Toddlers’ good moods deteriorate rapidly, but they do send out some warning signs. We try to finish eating and vacate the premises by the time our toddler’s interest in staying in one place has been exhausted, usually 45 minutes, max.

Do you take your little one out to eat? What helps you enjoy dining out with your toddler?