Having a meal out at a restaurant can be a real treat, but the minute you add young children to the mix, it can turn into a stomach churning experience. Your food goes uneaten or snatched in quick bursts while you try to control a screaming baby or toddler who only wants to crawl under the table and run around knocking into the other diners.
“Parents get very tense and nervous when they go to a restaurant with their children, because they’re on show. But there are some core parenting skills that are very effective when applied to this situation,” says educational psychologist and mother-of-three Gaynor Sbuttoni.
“The most important thing is to make eating out an enjoyable and fun experience. Play down any negatives and constantly praise what your child is doing well, such as holding his fork nicely or not fidgeting. Always focus on the good, and have realistic expectations.”
Eating out with babies
1 Babies can be perfect dining partners because if you time it correctly, they may sleep through the whole meal. Tiny infants will often snooze happily in a sling or lying flat in a buggy while you enjoy your food.
2 For older babies, you need to time it so they’re not tired and remember to come armed with a supply of toys. Choose toys that aren’t too noisy and perhaps those that have been hiding at the bottom of the toy basket and so may appear fresh and new.
3 Many restaurants actually love to attract very young customers and babies on solids can take advantage of freebies such as complimentary baby food. But be sensitive to your baby’s needs and if he’s having a bad day, don’t go. He won’t enjoy it and neither will you.
4 You can’t always guarantee there’ll be a highchair available, so why not bring a portable seat with you. If you plan to eat out regularly, it may be worth buying one – our buyer’s guide to booster seats and travel highchairs will help you decide what option will suit your needs.
Eating out with toddlers
5 “Don’t take your toddler anywhere where it matters,” is Gaynor’s advice. It’s inevitable that she’ll be noisy and restless at times and you don’t want to be worrying about making a terrible impression.”
6 Try to have short bursts of activity mixed with changes of scene, if possible. For example, start by pointing out anything interesting that’s going on, then do some crayoning with your child – some enlightened restaurants bring crayons and colouring-in to the table.
7 The classic mistake is to think that you’ll be able to sit and have a nice, long, uninterrupted chat with your friends. With this age group, it won’t happen – so don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
8 It’s tempting to ask for the kids’ meals first – but if you do this, the danger is that your children will be finished and getting bored before your food has even arrived. Instead, order promptly and go for a walk around while you’re waiting. And if you know your kids won’t last the course, don’t make a meal of it. Order only a main dish and leave while the going’s good.
Eating out with young children
9 At this age, you still can’t guarantee that good behaviour will be handed to you on a plate, but you can begin to ask more of your child. “Talk to your children beforehand about what you expect,” suggests Gaynor. “Tell them that when their lunch arrives, you’d like them to sit still and eat, and that when they’ve finished, they can play with their toys. Keep them interested by talking about and sharing what you’re eating.”
10 Why not try novelty value, such as a restaurant where you can watch the chefs at work or a pizza place where children can choose and design their own pizza toppings. For something a bit different try a fast-food Japanese noodle bar, where your little one can have fun grappling with chopsticks. It’s fast, loud and energetic – just like your child.
Tips for eating out with children
DO plan ahead – find out before you book if a restaurant has changing facilities, highchairs, a kids’ menu etc and judge the reaction when you say you’ll be bringing children.
DO ask other mums and dads. Word of mouth is often the best way to find local gems.
DON’T go at really busy times, when you’ll risk long waits for your food and you may be seated next to the romantic couple, looking for an intimate meal.
DON’T go when your child is starving hungry – she’ll be too irritable. Have a snack beforehand, or ask for bread as soon as you arrive.
DO bring your own bag of toys and tricks, even if the restaurant provides its own crayons or activities – it might just avert disaster.
DON’T fill your child up on high-sugar fizzy drinks, especially if this is likely to make her even more lively and loud.