Look Who’s Going Out for Dinner!

Yes, we’ll have the table that seats 5, preferably in the noise-proof chamber near the bathrooms?

I’ve been reading advice on Internet parenting forums lately on how to take toddlers out to a restaurant. There’s lot of great tips out there, most of it really constructive. And then there are some opinions that really don’t need expression. But opinions are like forums. Every one has an asshole. Or something like that.

It seems there are 3 groups of respondents:

  1. Those who have observed and want to replicate in their own lives that perfect trifecta: great kids, thoughtful parents, and happy restaurant experiences! (Put me here!)
  2. Those who want their friends/loved ones to teach their kids good restaurant etiquette because OMGZ are they the obnoxious, loud table at the restaurant (put my mother here), and
  3. Those who very much wish people with children would leave their little noisy chaos machines at home and stop inflicting them on the general restaurant-going population (the haters)

Since I happen to be a restaurant-going parent of 3, and it is, I hope, perceived that my children are not raving buttheads at restaurants, I figured I had something to add to the conversation!

Slow down on the vino, honey. I was able to wrestle the steak knife from the toddler’s grasp.

While it’s true that the spouse and I have been attending restaurants with our children for more than a decade now, and that we have 3 experienced restaurant-going offspring, we can admit that it didn’t come without some difficult learning moments. There were times we had to ask our waitperson to make dinner a “to go” order. Or we had to leave before ordering because we could tell things weren’t going to go well. There were dinners we ate quickly, and left very big tips for the waitperson, as penance for leaving a huge mess on the floor. And then, of course, there were times when we decided it would be best to not go to a restaurant.

Like everything else I’ve learned about parenting along the way, there is no consistent perfect restaurant experience. No truth or way of doing things that will result in 100% success at every try when you have young children. Everything is a variable.

The important thing is that we keep trying. Because the worst thing you can do is not even try. I don’t agree with the opinion that you should leave your kids with a babysitter until they are at an age when you can be assured they will be perfect angels. Going out to a restaurant with your family is an important part of socializing your child and teaching about expectations and self-awareness. Should this experience come at the cost of annoying and pissing off other restaurant patrons? Absolutely not. If you’re the kind of parent who doesn’t like to set limits and expectations, who likes to let your children figure things out from natural consequences, this might not be the article for you.

So. How do you take your infant/baby/toddler/child** out to a restaurant? The same way you do anything. You prepare! You spent months or years waiting to have a child. In the grand scheme of things, there are only a few years in your life you will have challenges with taking an infant/baby/toddler/child out to a restaurant. Be patient, keep your expectations reasonable, be prepared, and follow this age-appropriate guide for how to enjoy a positive restaurant experience with your children!

Newborn – 6 months

All I need is this spoon.

In these early months of having a new person in your family, going out to restaurants can be easy. Sleepy infants and (most) babies under 6 months’ old can nap in the car seat while you have a meal with a loved one. You might even think smugly to yourself, “Geesh, this is easy!” And it usually is! Choose a sleepy time of day/evening. Put an extra diaper layer on, and make her cozy. Have a babywearing device with you and a bottle, if you bottle feed. If baby wakes, nurse/feed her and cuddle her back to sleep. Continue eating and conversing!

As your baby grows, that ease gets a little more difficult to reach. But there is no reason you can’t figure out the ways to make going out to restaurants work for you and your family.

6 months – 8 months

When you are at that in-between stage, when your baby has reached the developmental stage of sitting up but before full-on mobility starts, going out to restaurants has a lot to do with timing. If your baby is still small enough to carry in the car seat or is happy in a stroller, choose a time that is usually close to a nap time. Make the journey to the restaurant a quiet time when your baby can get sleepy. Don’t over-stimulate the baby. Some people think if they keep baby awake until they arrive at the restaurant, the baby will pass out into a blissful slumber, giving the caregivers more time to indulge! This method often ends in the opposite result: You have a wound-up baby who is, all of a sudden, overwhelmed with noise, light, different smells, and the energy of dozens of people all around. This doesn’t end well for a lot of parents.

In your bag of tricks, you should have a few comfort items: a bottle (if your baby is bottle-fed), a pacifier or chew toy (a quiet one), a blanket, a favorite toy, and some kind of babywearing device. If things don’t go well, you can often hold/feed your baby, or one of the caregivers can wear the baby and walk around a little. The closeness of your body will calm your baby.

Even if you don’t time it perfectly, you should have the time to eat a meal, albeit with a little help. You may not have time for dessert and coffee, but that’s not too far in your future, either.

8 months – 12 months

OK, things are getting a little bit more challenging. Your baby is sitting up, practicing standing, crawling, or walking. This is an amazing time for your baby, full of new experiences and developmental milestones. It’s no wonder this is one of the hardest times to get consistent positive results in a public place.

Timing is important. Pick a time your baby is in his best mood. You know what time this is. If your baby melts down at 5pm, like my youngest did, you know that’s not a good time to try going out to a restaurant. I used to choose a time that followed “freak out o’clock.” So, 6:30pm was good. He was awake, past his emotional breakdown, yet not far from his next nap.

Before you leave, get him ready. Double the diaper (or if you use cloth diapers, insert a second layer). Put him in comfortable clothes/pajamas. Put a bib on him (you may need to later, anyway, so it’ll just save you a step). Pack your bag with distractions of all kinds. Your baby is now possibly trying out some solid foods, probably teething, learning/using some words, and working on fine motor control of his hands. So your bag should have toys that let him explore and uses his new abilities. Things that distract him while you put food in your mouth and attempt the “talking to other grown ups” thing. When one toy/distraction gets dropped/ignored, reach into the magic bag for something new. Suggestions for what to bring include the following: a bottle (again, if your baby is bottle-fed), a sippy-cup of water, a pacifier, a visual/busy toy that makes noise (not an electronic noise), small containers with things like Cheerios or small bits of soft fruit so he can practice fine motor control. Pack a few infant spoons and a couple of baby toothbrushes–things he can hold and stick into his mouth. Always pack his favorite toy/blanket and a babywearing device — these are your staples. Bring a lot of extra wipes to help clean up the mess on the table/floor. Being thoughtful of other patrons/waitpersons is something every caregiver of a baby should think about.

When you get to the restaurant, make sure you are seated in a place that is away from others, if possible. If your host tries to seat you near a large table full of grown-ups your age or older (with no children present), ask to be seated elsewhere. Those people might be either without children (and therefore not sympathetic if you have a parenting challenge), or they might be out for some no-kid time themselves. Be thoughtful! Hosts should seat caregivers-with-babies in an area where there are similar grown-up/baby groups, or at the edges of the dining area, or near the bathroom or an exit. Try to get the optimal seating for having a small one in your company, for the sake of your own sanity and for the sake of the other patrons.

Feed your baby before your food arrives. Nurse him/give him a bottle. Taking care of baby’s needs first means you have more time to take care of your own/your guest/partner/spouse’s needs. If the baby is still awake when the food comes, put him in a high chair. When the food arrives, give him food from your plate if you think he would like to try it. Put pieces of food in front of him at the table. You are doing a couple of things here. First, you’re giving him a distraction. Second, you’re teaching him that this is a social experience with a positive result: new tastes. Third, you are including him and giving him some of your attention.

Why do you take children of this age to a restaurant? You are trying to lay a foundation. You’re teaching him that going out to restaurants can be interesting and full of new experiences. These are positive feelings, and your baby will associate being at a restaurant with being happy.

12 months – 2.5 years

I’d really rather eat sand, Mom.

I’m grouping this age together because there is such a wide gap in development here. You know, from past experience, how important it is to pack the bag with interesting AND needful things. You know that you need an extra outfit, extra diapers, etc. All the feeding equipment for your toddler. Everything your child would need if you were leaving your house for a few hours.

This age brings a new tip: Bring a second bag. You need to teach your toddler how to pack her own bag for the restaurant. Choose a special bag for your toddler. Let her pick out toys/books (quiet ones, please)/art supplies/special friends and put them in the bag. Allow your child to carry the bag to the car/restaurant. While you’re packing the bag, talk about what you’re doing. Discuss the positives of going out to dinner. Even if your child doesn’t understand everything you’re saying, she is hearing your positive tone. You are setting expectations for behavior without having to do so verbally. With your actions, you are saying “Here is a bag of your favorite things, so you can amuse yourself and be happy during this experience.” It’s the same thing you do when going on an airplane or train.

Choose your table wisely. Your toddler may be noisy or wiggly, so it’s important that you can get up and make an escape if needed.Toddlers are usually very social, so you should expect that your little one may need more of your attention. Invite more caregivers! Take turns helping keep the toddler busy so that everyone gets to enjoy the experience.

Use all the tips for the prior developmental stage. Feed her first. Always bring something tasty that comes from home. Put her bag next to her, or take out a few items at a time. As your child gets older, she will want to decide which toy to play with. She will, I hope, know that this is a time to amuse herself and have a good, positive experience out with her caregivers, trying new foods and taking in the new sights and sounds.

If she gets wiggly, as children do at this stage, take her to the bathroom with you. Walk the long way, and point out interesting things in the decor. Make it a positive experience. In the bathroom, wash her hands. You’re trying to reset her a little, so let her walk on the way back to the table. If you are comfortable doing so, let your partner/guest/co-conspirator take the child for a longer walk or for some interaction while you sit down and eat some more of your meal. Take a break so that every person at the table is able to have a positive experience.

If your child starts to get hard to handle, and nursing/bottle feeding/nurturing/baby wearing isn’t working, it’s probably time to leave. Trying to placate a tired, over-stimulated child is hard to do in a restaurant, and it’s also NOT the place for discipline, time-outs, or long talks correcting a behavior seen as undesirable. For the sake of your child’s future restaurant experiences, and because you are a thoughtful person who knows it’s not OK to inflict such behavior on other patrons/waitstaff, please leave the dining area. One of the grown-ups can take the child to another part of the restaurant, or for a walk outside, or to the car, allowing the other grown-up(s) to finish the meal. Trade out caring for the child so that everyone finishes the meal and leaves the table without a huge mess.

If you are in the middle of toilet-training, you have another set of serious distractions. Consider well the timing and how your child is dressed. It may be more difficult to have time to eat and carry on a conversation with others, but you can still have a positive outcome.

The closer your toddler gets to the magic age of 2, the more he/she will (I hope) find ways to amuse himself/herself. I’m not sure why American culture calls this time the “terrible 2s” — when it’s an action-packed time of discovery and amusement. If you know your child well, you know the best times to go out, what to pack, and how the experience is likely to go.

At 2+, washable crayons/markers and paper are a big hit. I bring play-doh with me. I keep an extra special toy hidden in my bag. I always carry his special sippy cup and my little guy’s favorite snack. He loves Cliff Bars. You know the tricks to keeping your child happy and busy.

Knowing Your Limits

If I can’t bring every toy I own to Macaroni Grill, I’d rather eat here, on the floor.

Don’t doom yourself to failure. If he is teething/sick/having an “off” day, don’t go out to dinner. Order in. Have a picnic on your porch/living room floor. Set up a restaurant at your dining room table and role-play the behavior you want to see. Reinforce good table habits. And remember: these times of seclusion aren’t forever. In the years of raising children ahead of you, these first few years have the most challenges when it comes to sharing restaurant experiences. Go easily with yourself and your loved ones. It’s a relatively short period of time when things can be difficult.

From my own experience, there were times when going out to dinner wasn’t an option. We respected their age/stage, and didn’t set ourselves up for disaster. Even now, going out with all 3, while our youngest is 2+, is sometimes hard on all of us. Sometimes we’re close to being that table–the one with the screaming, crazy toddler. So we go home. And try again another time.

It’s good to set expectations and to teach acceptable restaurant behavior. And it’s good to know when to stay home. You’re always teaching. In restaurants, we’re still teaching the older kids important stuff, like good eye contact, manners, how to order food that’s good for you, and being kind to the waitstaff. The lessons never end. And the outcome is that you can have well-mannered, polite, courteous humans who know how to act in a public setting. And those humans will grow up to be fabulous people who respond positively to other positive parents in those same forums.

And thus the cycle will continue; we will we populate the world with awesomeness and once again make restaurants magnificent places in which to enjoy our dining experiences!

Do you have any magic tricks when going out to dinner with babies/toddlers? Any helpful suggestions for bringing young children to restaurants? Tell us about your experiences!


**My advice is for babies who experience a typical rate of development. I am NOT a child expert, nor do I ever pretend to have information on babies whose development is not typical.

About Terry L. Holt

Writer. Mother. Goddess. President of the Save the Dandelions Club. Climber of trees.
This entry was posted in Advice, Best Of, Journal. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Look Who’s Going Out for Dinner!

  1. Abbe says:

    My big magic tip was to practice eating out not to DINNER but to lunch and brunch and breakfast.    We do wind up doing dinner out, too (in fact, tonight we ate out not only at dinnertime but at approaching-what-would-be-bedtime-on-a-schoolnight… and it went far smoother than it ought to have!)  but while you’re learning restaurant skills it sometimes helps to do it at a time that is not at the end of a long day / close to bedtime / etc.

  2. Gaby says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to follow your website, with no luck. I find your posts inspiring, and at times I find myself reading your post about breastfeeding over and over again. 

    I have decided to allow my son to self wean. I think this could have caused his teeth to rot. The doctor says so, and everyone else thinks so. I wanted to ask if your young one went through that too ? 

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