How to Eat Out with a Toddler on Vacation
As we look ahead to our 40th week of this trip, I realize that WP will have eaten around 250-300 meals in restaurants by the time she is 18 months old. So we have some practice eating out with a toddler. While we love to cook simple things or get takeout while we travel, too, eating out at restaurants of all types is a key part of the cultural immersion we’re seeking, so we do it often. Here are some of my top tips to make the meals you have out of the house or hotel room a little easier.
Book a table...
When eating out with a toddler, the clock starts ticking as soon as you get to the restaurant and you’re in a confined, gotta-behave space. So don’t waste precious time waiting for your table. Make sure you have a booking, and show up on time or 5min late for it to minimize the chance that your table isn’t ready. In some countries, like Italy, it’s common to reserve each table only once per night, so you know you won’t have to wait.
...or eat off-peak
For restaurants that don’t take bookings, consider getting there the moment they open. Lots of more casual restaurants don’t take bookings but the more laid back atmosphere works well with a kid. Doesn’t change the fact that you don’t want to waste your valuable restaurant time waiting! Google Maps has a feature that shows you when restaurants (and store and sites) are typically more or less busy, and in some cases offers their guess at real-time crowdedness. If you’re not planning to get somewhere when it opens, check this feature to see how you might fare.
Choose places with high chairs...
We have walked away from restaurants that could seat us immediately if those seats were only adult-sized. Of course we can make it work without a high chair, but that generally means only one of us is eating at a time, someone has a squirmy baby on their lap, and we’re constantly lunging at glassware and knives to keep them out of reach. A high chair solves for all of this. It makes eating out infinitely more pleasant. Forgo even the most appealing restaurant if they do not have a highchair.
...but laps only until the food comes
Grab the high chair first thing when you get to the restaurant as many have a limited supply (sometimes just one for a small place). But don’t use it until the food arrives. You want to maximize your ability to eat in a relaxed fashion, and the high chair is way more interesting to your toddler if there’s food on the tray or on the table in front of them. Otherwise it’s just kind of prison. So go for walks, keep the kiddo on your lap, do whatever you can to hold off on the high chair until food time.
Order the first time the waiter approaches your table. If you can, review the menu online in advance. Read it if it’s posted out front, before you walk inside. Grab one from the host station while your table is being set. Whatever you do, just try to avoid the scenario where you are seated, you have to wait for menus, and then when you finally get them you’ve never seen what’s on it before. Do not chat with your tablemates when you are first seated. Insist that everyone pick up their menu immediately and get to business. Dispense with the custom of ordering drinks first. Order everything at the same time. This is annoying. Even my husband hates that I insist on this. But the way I see it, you have a finite amount of fuss-free table time, you don’t know exactly how much it’s going to be, and I’d much rather use those 15 or so minutes that usually precede ordering to actually get to eat what I order - so I don’t care.
Order drinks for the toddler, too
We tend to get a cocktail or a glass of wine or beer when we dine out. You are asking your toddler to share this restaurant experience with you, so make sure she can partake as fully as possible. If you didn’t bring your own, order a glass of milk, or just get water with lemon and lime in it. If it’s breakfast and you’re having juice, pour a little bit in a glass and top off generously with water. Ask for a straw. If your toddler is usually drinking out of a kids cup of some sort, drinking out of the same type of glass you are will be novel and fun. WP always eats the citrus in her water as well, buying us precious minutes.
Take a break between courses
Don’t let too much potential energy build up without converting some to kinetic. If you are eating a multi-course meal, take a break between courses. I remember being in a restaurant in Paris once where the whole place emptied out suddenly, with bags and jackets left hung over chairs. We realized everyone had gone out for a smoke break. Toddlers need the equivalent of a smoke break if they are going to sit through more than one course. Get up, walk around, run outside if you can, or find something interesting to look at like the kitchen if you can’t, and then make sure when you bring the kiddo back to the table there is something new and enticing there to coax her back into her seat (a toy, new food, etc).
Encourage experimental eating...
Give your kid a chance to surprise you. The first meal we ate out with WP on this trip was in Rome, with work colleagues of mine. The owner of the restaurant insisted she should make WP a plate of pasta all’amatriciana. She was eight months old. I finally talked her out of it, but it totally shifted my thinking on what WP could eat. So when the antipasti showed up at the table I stuck bits of vinegary eggplant, garlicky bread, and everything in between in her mouth. She ate way more, and more strong flavors, than I would have thought. From then on, we decided to mostly just feed her from our plates.
...but bring your own snacks
Of course that doesn’t work all the time, and a hungry baby is a cranky baby. So we do travel with back-up snacks. Try not to use them before meals (and hide the bread basket or ask for it to be brought with the entrees) because a hungry toddler will actually spend time at the meal eating. But we do readily offer one of her favorite foods like an orange or rice cakes or yogurt after a meal if she hasn’t eaten enough. We encourage her to try things, but it’s okay if she doesn’t like or eat them. While we order a glass of (tap) water with citrus at the restaurant, we also bring a cup with milk in it because it’s annoying to spend the same on a glass of milk in a restaurant as on a carton in the store. If you’re going to be out for awhile bring an insulated container or just throw some ice cubes in a regular one.
Let strangers hold your baby
This is more relevant in some countries than others, where the general culture around babies is more doting and hands on. But in my experience, if someone wants to hold your baby in a restaurant, you let them. We’ve gotten 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted coffee-drinking or meal-eating when WP hits it off with a hostess or when a waitress brings her to visit the kitchen. The chances that someone will abscond from their place of work with your baby are vanishingly low. In my experience your child will likely be happy to spend a few minutes with someone who is excited to bounce them around rather than someone who is desperately trying to sip a hot beverage or eat a saucy meal while coloring with one hand.
Bring books, crayons, and toys
Which leads me to my next point -- do not arrive to a restaurant empty handed. Our version of a diaper bag is a small tote bag with a changing pad, 2-3 books, crayons and a notebook, and perhaps one additional toy, plus the aforementioned snacks and milk. One tip I’ve heard a lot for flying is to bring new toys to trot out periodically (from the dollar store or similar). This is great at a restaurant, too. If you’re dining with friends who also have a kid, swap toys for the meal so each has something new.
Download a Sesame Street episode
We don’t do much screen time as a family generally, but we’re definitely pro using the tablet in the car and the phone at the restaurant table when needed. Once we’ve run through all the other tricks, if there’s still a nearly full plate of food in front of both of us, or if we’re out with friends and want to enjoy the rest of the meal, we’ll put an episode of Sesame Street on, sans sound, and prop the phone in front of WP. She is transfixed, the content is educational, and we can actually eat in peace. If you’re traveling internationally, there are options to download episodes, or you can log onto the restaurant’s wifi (this is nearly ubiquitous these days) and stream.
Bonus: Track down a kinder cafe
In some cities all these tricks are barely even necessary if you can avail yourself of a dining concept often called the kinder cafe. These are restaurants with dedicated children’s play areas. We’ve seen these all over Amsterdam, plus in Edinburgh, Valencia, and a handful of other places. They range from spaces that are really dedicated to kids with perfunctory coffee and snacks for adults, to restaurants that would be unremarkable except for a children’s play area, to upscale places with a little side room with movies playing. These can be remarkably hard to search for online (particularly if you aren’t able to search in the native language), but local or expat mom blogs tend to have lists (this is also how I track down music classes and the like for us to drop in to). Even if the food is just fine, getting to eat while your kid gets to play is priceless.
It can be challenging and exhausting to eat out with a toddler. That said, it’s also part of the fun and the cultural immersion of travel. So I hope these tips help you have smoother meals on vacation!