Dining out with toddlers. If you’re traveling with kids, there’s a good chance that at some point you’re going to be going to a restaurant with them. This restaurant-going thing, once an exciting, leisurely, and pleasurable part of traveling, can quickly become the opposite once we account for our tiny dining companions. As with airplanes, a restaurant is one of those places where we feel dozens of eyes staring the moment our kid throws his first spoon on the ground, and there aren’t a ton of options for escape,
But restaurants and food are great (the best?) ways to get to know a place and a culture, and well, eating is essential, so there’s really no getting around them. So while it’s a bit more complicated, a bit more rushed, and maybe decidedly less about the latest hot spots, dining out can still be a fun part of your vacation — it just takes a bit of planning.
Here are seven ideas for making dining out with kids a little bit easier:
1. Go where you feel comfortable.
Look, let’s be realistic: kids do not belong everywhere, and not everywhere is going to be accommodating to our kids. You’re probably not going to have the most amazing meal of your life with your two-year-old at the table, and that is ok. Often when we travel, especially outside of the U.S. where taking small children to restaurants isn’t as common, things like kids’ menus, crayons, plastic cups, and even highchairs are not always at the ready. If they are, they’re likely not going to be at some glorious place you’re going to go home and rave about, so be mindful about your choices. Where are you going to feel comfortable? Think about the crowd – too trendy? Too fancy? What about the size of the space? So tiny that everyone else will be dining with your kids, too? If you really have your heart set on going to a place that isn’t overtly kid-welcoming, try on off-peak time, like an early dinner, or eating outside.
2. Never take a hungry kid to a restaurant.
But . . . the restaurant is where we go to not be hungry? No! Nip a hangry child in the bud by giving them a little something beforehand or timing your outing so that you arrive a bit earlier than your normal mealtime. If you’re meeting friends, we are big fans of suggesting 10AM brunches or late afternoon coffees – these are snack times for little kids and way less pressure than an actual meal. These staggered, off-peak times are also helpful because places will be quieter. That being said . . .
3. Keep a snack stash at the ready.
Of course, all parents know to pack snacks on snacks on snacks, ranging from the optimistically healthy-ish to the secret stuff you keep for bribes. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but bring snacks to the restaurant! You never know what’s going to happen: the food could take forever, your kid could get really excited by the idea of eating and need something immediately, they might refuse to eat what’s being served, or need something safe and familiar – you know these kids and their whims. Have a backup just in case.
One of our first stops, when we reach a destination, is a grocery store so we can freshen our snack supply. I like to travel with reusable containers so that I can portion things out when we head out for the day. Crackers, granola bars, low sugar cereals and cookies, fruit, and Babybel or cubed cheese are easy options, and though they aren’t nutritionists’ favorite, fruit & veggie purée pouches are something we always have on hand when we travel.
In a pinch, you can always ask the waiter for bread or something else that they can bring out quickly.
4. Make a reservation.
Brevity is the soul of dining in a restaurant with a small child, and ohhh my, you know the time and enormous effort it takes to get a baby and/or a toddler out the door! You do not want to go through all that, make a trek to the place that you have researched and finally decided upon, and then have them tell you that there are no tables. Been there, done that, quelle nightmare. Reserve one if possible and count everyone, even a baby if they need their own seat. It’s always wise to mention if you’ll need a highchair and that some of the people in your party are kids.
5. Bring distractions.
It’s a good idea to travel with small toys, crayons, and paper, or books so that when there is some downtime there’s something to keep busy. Nothing on hand? Try old standby games like “I Spy”, “Telephone”, or “Finish the Story” type games. Some of our favorite airplane activities will work just as well on land, too. Check out the amazing activity workbooks by Deliberate Travel (they might even have one for your destination!). In a perfect world, talk to your kid about what’s going on in the restaurant. Talk about the different kinds of jobs, where the food comes from, read the menu. It can buy you a few minutes, sometimes. I of course would never whip my phone out and let them watch Cocomelon . . . Hey, do what you’ve got to do, parents!
6. But ok, can we talk about play areas?
I’m not talking about the PlayPlace or robotic singing mice slinging questionable pizza of our youths, oh no. These days we have the, still rare, but entirely magical establishments that have actual delicious food AND toys or a designated space for kids to play. They exist! And they’re amazing. And we need more of them. When researching a trip, I always do a search for “restaurants with a play area in (city)” to see what comes up, and as these are a growing trend, the options are always expanding. Check out one of our favorites in London here. This is also a great thing to ask about in our private Bébé Voyage group!
We love discovering these types of places where you’ll have a little something for everyone, plus be surrounded by parents who get it and can have an opportunity to breathe a little easier.
7. Pick a picnic.
Here’s something to really take the pressure off: forget the restaurant altogether! Visit a local market, food hall, a locally loved takeaway place, and bring it to a park. It will save you a little money, a lot of sanity, and you’ll probably have a better dining experience, eating something that doesn’t need to be prepared in a place that ticks all the “family-friendly” boxes. You’ll get an opportunity to eat something more local, plus give your kids the opportunity to run around and be the free little wild people that they are.
If any of this makes it sound like I know what I’m doing, I promise you I do not. Do any of us? If you have been to a restaurant with my kids, you know that we fail. Often. Most of the time. But when the stars align these help! All that we can do is hope that by starting early, one day our kids will really enjoy the food part of traveling and the social aspect of sitting down to a meal together.
What about you? Have you discovered anything that helps to keep your family happy while dining at a restaurant? Share away!
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