If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it a thousand times. Mom and dad are sitting with a wiggly, fussy baby boxing up their half-eaten food and looking around the room with red faces. Are they embarrassed, exhausted, or irate? Probably a mix of all three!
From an early age, we brought our son to restaurants with the express expectation that he sit through most, if not all of the meal. There were nights we’d sit and sip wine while he played with ice from a kiddie cup for nearly two hours. Those were marvelous days! And other days I, admittedly, left the venue before we even ordered drinks, looking at my husband with a flushed face and moist eyes (from the steam of my anger more than from humiliation) and asked him to bring the baby and I some food home.
Other times I would walk around and around the area where we were dining hoping to “tire out” the baby enough to get him to sit still long enough for me to shovel in some food. In the end, I’ve developed an awesome arsenal of tricks for dining out with baby. In fact, I wish I’d had these about two years ago before I had to learn them all the hard way!
1. Go to interesting restaurants
I had so many wonderful dining experiences while traveling with my son. We went to Benihana’s and other Japanese Teppanyaki restaurants because my son could sit for over an hour and watch the chef cook over the burning hot griddle. I’ve found that when there’s a baby at the table, hibachi chefs love to entertain with choo-choo trains made of smoking onions and other variations of flaming foods.
At six months old my son was still mostly breastfed, but he loved to sit and play with loaves of bread or squish rice in between his fingers. I happily obliged if it meant I got a few extra minutes of time with my husband.
Then at 9 months old our little one loved to go to restaurants where he could indulge in soup. Miso, beef broth, chicken noodle, and even butternut squash soup were all delightful to him. (Make sure it isn’t too hot, nor too spicy!)
When my son was just over a year old we began frequenting a sushi restaurant where the chef loved to bring out fun foods for my son. He’d fashion a vegetable roll to look like a dragon and my son would eat the rice delightedly. He loved to crunch salty salmon eggs and he especially loved to see the monster-like fried prawns on our plates. (He may have even tried a prawn or two from a surprisingly young age.)
Once your little one is securely mobile, there’s always the option of a restaurant with a play place. However, germs really abound in some fast-food indoor play places so I’ve generally avoided those. What’s more, it isn’t fun if you have to endure terrible food to keep your child happy!
2. Find restaurants with play areas or outdoor activities
I’m really not a fan of fast food, so I’m not talking about a McDonald’s Playplace or Chuck E. Cheese. Besides, that’s not very creative.
Imagine eating at a delicious Italian Bistro, Sushi Bar, or Upscale Modern American Bar where your baby is as entertained as with a playplace. Okay, now that I have your attention…
Once while traveling and staying at a nice hotel in Aspen we discovered something that our son, then thirteen months, could have played with until morning. Cornhole! Suddenly we were traveling and searching on Yelp for restaurants with Cornhole. He would sit for two hours or more and play with the bags or climb up and down the ramp to the cornhole game. It was money! (Just make sure you’re not using a cornhole ramp that somebody is throwing bags at!)
We found that a surprising amount of restaurants cater to children by having small play areas adjacent to their outdoor seating area. Frankly, they’d always been there I’d just never noticed them!
We also love to hit bowling alleys while travleling. Our son would love to play with the arcade game buttons or watch all the flashing lights (he doesn’t see TV at home) and our friends were great about taking turns watching the baby so my husband and I could bowl (terribly).
In Kau’ai my husband and I loved all the restaurants with outdoor benches or gardens where my son loved to pick flowers or just walk around and “sniff sniff” them for long periods of time.
3. Use items on the table to soothe tantrums
Tantrums happen. Teething happens. So how can you combat the two?
One trick you will find works marvelously is to let your little one gnaw on lemons and limes. I have no idea why infants love lemons and limes, but from the time my son was a few months old, no margarita was safe from his grasp.
Until my son was at least thirteen or fourteen months old, he’d entertain himself with ice chips and cups. He loved to pick the ice out with his own fingers and soothe his gums with it.
Long before it was probably safe, we allowed my son to play with crayons in restaurants. Your best bet (because he or she will definitely eat the crayons) is to always have a few of your own non-toxic or soy crayons that he or she will inevitably take a bite or two of.
And here’s a fascinating tip: pickles. Yep, vinegar doesn’t just numb sore gums from teething, but it also helps combat infections such as thrush. Restaurants will generally be eager to keep babies calm, so requests for things such as ice, pickles, crayons, and pieces of citrus is usually no problem for restaurant staff.
4. Bring indestructible books to read
I love indestructible books! They’re great for restaurants because if they get dirty, you can literally hose them off at home.
Some of my favorites have been Jungly Tails and other cloth books because they can go in the wash machine. And if you’re bringing it in a restaurant, rest assured it will need to go in the wash machine when you’re done!
Another benefit to cloth books is that they’re easy to pack while you’re traveling and lightweight, as well! What’s more, you never know when a cloth book help you out cleaning up an otherwise uncontainable mess. Or if you can’t find the wet wipes and your darling one has emptied the contents of an entire fruit squeeze into his high chair… again.
We’ve also loved finding “bathtime” books on Amazon. These are books that are designed to go into bathtubs. I’ve found that from the time my son was able to hold up his own arm, he’d spill water. Everywhere. Don’t fret about spilled water and invest in some indestructible, waterproof books for baby.
5. Keep nurturing company
A lack of sleep is only exacerbated by a lack of relaxing meal time for mommies. Before I learned all these tricks for mealtime, I went weeks struggling to get any food down while sitting. In fact, I noticed that I was gaining weight due to not being able to read my body’s hunger cues because I was so focused on baby that I shoveled food down mindlessly.
I love to dine with friends or family members who eagerly pick my son up to take walks with him while I eat. What a relief! In Chicago our friend John walked with our son for twenty minutes while his lovely wife and I enjoyed our eggs Benedict and my father loves to take our son on walks while the rest of us gab away at the table.
There’s nothing worse than when your child begins acting up (which he or she inevitably will) and you’re alone to try to manage the situation. When you find company that nourishes your family (as you nourish your body), cling to those friends! You deserve a few minutes to eat mindfully. Don’t give in to mommy guilt whenever people try to help you out. And if you really feel the urge, it’s always meaningful to send a postcard with a quick “thank you” on it once the meal is done. I love to send postcards through my iPhone with an app that sends a card in the mail with a photo of my son with our friends at the very restaurant I’m referencing in my thank you note. These types of meaningful things will make you and your baby a joy to eat with for your friends and they’ll be eager to give you a helping hand.
6. Bring toys you won’t have to bend over to pick up every ten seconds
Have you ever tried to eat out with baby and find that by the time your appetizer arrives you’ve managed to give yourself a backache with all the bending over to retrieve toys?
Those little chain links made for babies are fantastic. We’d fasted stuffed animals, teething toys, sippy cups, books, and even balloons to our high chair or booster seat and my son was delighted to be so independent. And, frankly, from a young age he loved to throw things so he could throw toys to his heart’s content without having the interminable lull of mommy picking up the toy only so he could throw it again as soon as I picked my napkin back up (out of the water glass where he’d shove it while I picked up the toy.)
You can also find books that have hooks on them so that as your little one flips through the books, he or she won’t toss it over the side of the highchair repeatedly.
I also wait for restaurants to bring out some of my son’s “high value” toys. These are toys with which he seems to be the most fascinated at any given point in time. Sometimes it was balloons. Other times it was books that had mirrors or stretchy pages. Whatever is delighting your child, don’t bring it out at home when he has a hundred other things to entertain him. Wait until you’re at a restaurant and really need to focus on you.
7. Bring Your Own Ketchup…
We loved to make the dinner table a place of exploration and learning for our son. When he was just a few months old, he’d grab at things like spoons or toys, but was more of a potted plant in restaurants.
However, as he got older he loved to explore everything on the table. He was drinking out of cups at a very young age and we spent hours breaking ice chips into baby-sized pieces for him to teethe with.
While at restaurants we took advantage of somebody else having to do the cleanup and taught my son how to use his first sippy cups, straws, and even how to master the art of eating goldfish crackers and puffs. He loved learning to pick up food on his own! Even though he was mostly breastfed for his first year of life, he played with food in restaurants and has had a solid, healthy relationship with food ever since he began eating solids.
As he began to get really grabby, we’d keep little ramekins of our family’s approved foods in our car kit with our booster seat. For instance, I didn’t want him dunking french fries in ketchup with high fructose corn syrup, so I kept an agave nectar or sugar free pure tomato ketchup in my bag and I’d allow him to dunk potatoes or other foods into the ramekin. It was a pure mess, but pure joy for the baby. What’s more, it makes dining out a fun adventure that fosters learning, such as motor skills involved in dunking foods into ketchup. The best part? The tables are washed by a bus staff, and you don’t have to worry about the baby “learning” about ketchup in your home where there are carpets, pets, or upholstered furniture!
Once your child is beginning to say words, you can teach him or her colors by the sugar packets. We used to show him words like hot and cold and accompany them with signs like shivers for cold or surprised looks for hot (obviously to teach him that hot means “do not touch”.) Our son loves sign language and we’d try to work with his newest sign while at restaurants. After all, it’s not easy to get baby to be a captive audience to learning. The situation benefits both mommy and baby!
8. Put baby in the right seat
Many babies hate high chairs, possibly due to how far away from mommy and daddy they feel. We’ve loved getting big booths where, if baby really fusses, he can sit on the table. I know that’s not ideal, but it worked for us and our child was good about sitting still if he was right under our noses.
Another trick I learned is to reject the house booster chair or high chair (they’re filthy, anyway!) and find a great travel high chair that my son could use anywhere. I attached plastic toys or books to the high chair and whenever we went to a restaurant, it was the only time he saw these few very special toys.
And once your little one is walking, I highly recommend booths. Booths make it easy for your toddler to “walk” around a bit, or at least stand while you struggle to suck down a margarita and walk the perimeter of the restaurant. Honestly, though, booths typically have tons more room for fun activities such as coloring or stacking sugar packets. If your little one is taking up more space than during his or her potted plant stage, you know that booths are the way to go!
9. Choose the right time to dine
Don’t bring a restless baby to a restaurant and ask him to sit still for even longer! If you’ve been on the road traveling with your little one, choose a restaurant where he or she can roll around on a picnic blanket or, if the baby is walking, where he or she can toddle around safely.
Here’s another idea of all of you brave, traveling moms and dads. What about dining late? You don’t have to be in Europe to enjoy a candlelit dinner after-hours. One of my all-time favorite dining experiences with our son was when we had cocktails while I nursed him to sleep (sparkling water for me, of course) and then ordered food once he was sound asleep on my shoulder. We did this throughout his first year and a half, in fact!
In an ideal world, parents would have nannies or babysitters to help them enjoy mealtime. But in the real world, you need to work with what you’ve got. Is your son or daughter in a fussy phase that isn’t allowing you the time you need to interact socially or enjoy a meal out once in a while? Maybe bedtime meals are for you!
The key to happy dining with a baby, just like happy travel with a baby, is to be flexible and use the tools around you to create a fun, relaxing, and positively stimulating environment for he whole family (not to mention your fellow diners).