Survival Tips for Dining Out with Babies and Toddlers
My husband and I made eye contact as we parked, drawing deep breaths and steeling ourselves for what was to come. Stepping out of the car, I liberated the hangry toddler from a car seat covered in stickers and an absurd amount of cracker crumbs. He wrestled the fussy baby from her seat and grabbed the diaper bag I’d tossed into the backseat only hours ago. As we hoisted unwilling but curious children from their unhappy confinement after an afternoon spent running errands, we made eye contact again. I felt myself smirk as he nodded and said, “We can do this.”
There is nothing more Desperado-esque than two tired parents and their two hangry children strolling into a fast-casual, Asian-fusion chain restaurant at 7:15 p.m. on a Wednesday.
After negotiating with the toddler and selecting the most blasé, unseasoned variety of fried chicken for her, I ordered my own food and took the baby to find a seat while my husband finished the order and got us water. I reminded him to ask for lids. He did not hear me, of course, because the toddler was around his ankles, inquiring to ensure her food would be as familiar and tasteless as possible.
As I sat down, the baby suddenly stopped fussing and made the noise one learns can only mean one thing: Whatever had been plaguing my child was now outside of her body and filling her seat. I scooped her and the diaper bag up as my husband sat down with three open water cups and a toddler clamoring for crayons. He took one look at the grimy table and asked me to hand him a baby wipe. I managed this with one hand and took off before my absence could be objected to by my eldest. Once at the changing table, I discovered not only that my child must have consumed something truly legendary but that we had only two baby wipes left.
When I returned to the table with a diaper-only baby, my husband informed me that my eldest was upset that something green had touched her chicken and now refused to eat it. He shoved a bite of curry into his mouth before heading to retrieve extra clothes from our back-up stash in the trunk. He returned after an incredibly long time with a seasonably inappropriate onesie and some 2T pants. By this time the table was covered in discarded chopsticks, sticky rice and crayon wrappers.
We sat in a grumpy silence as we alternatively shoveled food into our faces, cajoled the biggest kiddo to eat something and chopped up tiny pieces of food for the baby, who was happily gobbling up anything and everything in reach. A young couple came into the otherwise deserted restaurant dressed for a school formal and sat not terribly far from us. My husband and I watched them with a mixture of nostalgia, bitterness and mirth as our children proceeded to provide them and everyone in the kitchen with plenty of reminders that taking tiny humans out to eat, while sometimes necessary and occasionally fun, is often messy and inglorious. Realizing we were sharing the same dark thoughts, we laughed and managed to enjoy the rest of our meal before packing up and vowing (unsuccessfully) never to do this again.
With that badge of honor on my Mama vest, I wish to share my secrets for more peaceably eating out with infants and toddlers:
Have small, kid-friendly snacks packed, along with ample baby wipes and an empty plastic bag in case you need to transport messy bibs or clothing home. I’ve been to many restaurants with my family, and no one has ever objected to me providing my small children with their personal water bottle or a small baggie of cereal while we peruse the menu.
The Art of Distraction
I emptied out an expired plastic first aid kit and filled it with small books from Happy Meals, tiny blank notebooks, stickers and a ziplock baggie of crayons, along with a few novel minifigures from the Target Dollar Spot and a couple of Hot Wheels. I decorated it with a picture of Mo Willem’s Pigeon (my children’s personal role model at that stage of their life) before sticking it under my seat, leaving it in the car for emergencies and dining-out situations only. To this day, my daughters cheer if we reach for “Pigeon box” and utilize it while waiting for their food, especially at restaurants that *gasp* do not provide coloring materials to young diners.
When servers offer you small packets of crackers or a passing grandmother speaks to your cheerful and increasingly loud child, be gracious and appreciative. It’s likely a parenting veteran who remembers their own time in the dine-out trenches.
It should be noted that while it is part of a server’s job to bus your table and clean the floor underneath, it is not polite to scatter rice and chewed-up bread all over creation. Clean up as best you can and apologize if you simply have to bail. Make a habit of leaving a generous tip, not just to compensate for your mess but to model respect for others. You just got a hot meal while an arguably busy server asked your toddler their favorite dinosaur and retrieved your baby’s “accidentally” dropped rattle 10 times.
Dining out with small children, while always a bit of a gamble, is a vital piece of maintaining one’s sanity in a world often consumed by Daniel Tiger and freezer chicken nuggets. Be brave, fellow parenting warrior. Adventure and hot food you didn’t cook is out there.
Alicia is an Early Childhood Educator who works with young toddlers. She finds joy and inspiration to write in their cheeky shenanigans, as well as those of her two daughters.