Taking your toddler to a restaurant can feel both exciting and overwhelming. You’re FINALLY getting out of the house and you don’t have to worry about cooking… but it can also be worrisome to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. So let’s cover the basics, including:
- Choosing a restaurant
- What to bring with you (hint: SNACKS!)
- What to do when you arrive and when the food comes out
- And what to order for your baby or toddler
Plus, I’ll give you a bunch of extra tips throughout, and leave you with everything you need to actually enjoy a dinner out with your little family – instead of hibernating at home for the next 5+ years!
And in case you missed my hint about snacks – seriously don’t forget those – be sure to grab my Ultimate Snack Guide for Babies and Toddlers below. Complete with my favorite pre-packaged snacks, and the best easy snack options (over 125+ ideas) so you know exactly what to pack when I tell you to bring snacks (because I will tell you that).
I know what it’s like to be scared to bring your toddler out to a restaurant – having had two under two, I’m well-versed in what toddler chaos in a restaurant scene can look like and remember it well. But, I also have had the most amazing experiences with my boys trying out many, many different restaurants – and essentially have a couple foodies on my hands now!
That’s why I created this resource with my top tips to help you have the best experience possible…because I’ve seen the benefits of bringing your toddlers out to eat starting at a young age. However, it’s also important to have realistic expectations when it comes to little kids – it requires patience along with what I share here. Let’s get you ready for your next family night out!
REVIEW THE RESTAURANT and MENU
To save time and prevent having an upset or tired toddler on your hands
If the situation allows, review the menu online for the restaurant you’ll be going to ahead of time. You can quickly scan it to figure out what you’d like to order, which means one less decision for you to make when you’re there and managing your child in the moment.
This is extremely helpful as it will cut down on your sitting or waiting time before your food comes. It’s not easy for toddlers to sit and wait for long periods of time, so saving time by putting in your order right away will really help with this.
To help your picky eater
Scanning the menu beforehand also lets you know what type of food you can expect. This is especially helpful if you have a picky toddler, or if your child has anxiety around new food. This allows you to prep them as to what the food could be like there by describing the options to them, and maybe even showing them some pictures of the food. This also works well to reassure them that there are some safe food options on the menu as well.
With that said, this is also a GREAT time to allow your toddler to try new things off of your plate or from an appetizer that they may never have had before. The power of exposure becomes multiplied because restaurants are novel environments and (generally) exciting for toddlers and adults. This means new foods may be more readily accepted! This worked wonders for my kids and we made sure they always tried something exotic that we didn’t make at home when eating out.
Top tip: Don’t order from the kid's menu!
Just because the restaurant probably has a kid’s menu, doesn’t mean you have to order from it! If you’re able to, let them pick from the main menu. This gives your toddler the opportunity to choose something new, usually with a familiar side option like potatoes, bread, or fries, and makes them feel like an adult! The novelty of being able to choose from the adult menu, just like their parents, can carry over into their willingness to eat it (and then ultimately eat it if you make it at home too!).
To approve seating options
You also might want to check that the restaurant has high chairs or booster seats with straps for your little one. If your little one absolutely needs a footrest on their seat to stay still, do they have one?
You may opt to bring a seating option of your own from home, depending on what they have available, but if you can use theirs…the less you have to pack…the better!
I would personally use this as a gauge for how kid-friendly a restaurant is as well. Chances are, if they don’t have high chair or booster seat options, they aren’t used to having children dine in and therefore you may have a less than stellar experience there. While I’m not saying don’t try it – you have to do what feels comfortable for you – it’s just something to keep in mind, particularly if it’s your first time venturing out with your toddler. Let’s set you up for success as much as possible, and choosing the right restaurant, like a local family dining chain that is used to young kids being there, helps for sure!
PACK THE RIGHT THINGS
Snacks make all the difference!
Bring a simple snack with you just in case the food takes too long to come and your child starts to get hangry or impatient.
Simple snacks I recommend that don’t take up too much room in their tummy before the main meal, include:
- O’s cereal
- Puffs (more for distraction vs. satisfying any hunger)
- Leftover roasted veggies
- Apple sauce
- Snapea crisps
- Dried fruit
For a complete guide on my favorite snacks – not just for restaurants but daily – grab my Ultimate Snack Guide for Babies and Toddlers! With a complete list of my approved pre-packaged snacks, plus easy snacks to put together in under 3 minutes, you’ll have lots of easy options to pack for whenever you go out to eat.
Most family-style restaurants will have coloring pages and crayons for toddlers, but for babies you may want to bring a couple things they’d be able to play with and use for entertainment while waiting for the food.
They can be random knick-knacks or objects that aren’t even designated toys (for example, my kids always liked playing with my wallet and would pull out and insert my cards into the slots). ALWAYS bring low-noise games or toys to be respectful of other diners.
Some things I recommend, include:
- Your own coloring pages
- Card matching games
- Teething toys
- Plush toys
- Deck of cards (Go-Fish!)
You can also be prepared to entertain your little ones with simple word games everyone can participate in (except for young babies). Try playing “I Spy” or “Would you Rather” with your toddler or preschooler. Most of us know “I Spy”, but “Would you Rather” is when you ask them silly and random questions, such as “Would you rather have a lion or a dinosaur as a pet?” The idea is to do something fun and silly to make them laugh and distract them from their hungry tummies.
Find more ideas for what to talk about and tips for mealtime conversations, here.
Bringing simple feeding gear can be helpful when dining out to make eating easier for your child and to also help contain some mess! Without going overboard, some things you can bring, include:
- Their favorite utensils (I like Num Num Gootensil or ezpz for toddlers)
- Bib (I like long sleeved bibs – see section below re: mess!)
- Suction plate (I like Oxotot and ezpz mini mat)
- Straw cup or open cup (I like the ezpz tiny cup with straw system and Thermos Funtainers for toddlers)
- Kids safe food picks (to entice toddlers to try food!)
- Seating option (if necessary – see my blog on the best high chairs and boosters for my favorites)
Something to contain the mess
There will be mess and that’s ok! Ignore any stares…others can deal.
Some things I recommend bringing are:
What to consider WHEN YOU GET TO THE RESTAURANT
Ask to be seated at a corner table, in a booth, or on the patio if it’s a nice day. Parents sometimes worry about being “too much trouble” by requesting something like this, but trust me, it’s no trouble for them and it’s a benefit for everyone!
The idea behind a table in the corner, away from others, is that it provides the added benefit of extra space and distance, should there be a bit more noise than you’d like. Booths also help with this because the tall sides help to block the noise and can offer you more privacy when parenting – no unsolicited advice here, please!
Booths are my usual go-to but sitting outside is a close second because it’s just a nice experience for everyone. The fresh air and view (even if that’s just of a street) can provide a welcome distraction. Ultimately, there is no wrong place to sit, and I firmly believe you shouldn’t worry too much about the other diners, but when you can give your family and others that extra bit of space, it’s a win-win.
Clear everything off the table that’s within your child’s reach that’s dangerous. Think forks, knives, candles, glassware, bread plates, etc. You want a nice, clear space in front of them so they can’t knock anything on the floor, touch anything hot, or cut themselves on anything sharp.
Prevent restlessness in their chair
Don’t put them in the high chair or booster seat until the food is there. They only have a limited amount of time that they’re willing to actually sit strapped in their seat. So save that for when it’s time to eat.
Take turns with another adult to hold them in your lap and now is the prime time to offer them one of those entertainment gadgets or toys. You can also walk them around the restaurant if they’re showing signs of getting restless from sitting.
Tell the server as soon as you get to your table that you’re in a time crunch because of your child, and you’d love to put your orders in right away. If you’re ordering an appetizer, order that right away first and then let them know that you’d like them to start cooking the entrees as soon as the appetizers are served, so there’s little time to wait between appetizers and the main meal coming out.
Top tip: Ask for your child’s meal with the appetizers!
If you’re ordering appetizers, instead of having your toddler’s main course come out with the rest of the main meals, ask that their food be served with the appetizers. This way they can still get the chance to try the appetizers, and they can eat their food right away so there’s less chance of them melting down from hunger. If they finish before you do, it isn’t a big deal, at least they’ll be full and (hopefully) happy because of it. This means they will be more likely to quietly enjoy whatever entertainment you packed for them while you eat in (relative) peace.
If you’re not ordering appetizers, then ask if they can bring out a bread basket and maybe some olive oil to the table right away. Children (and adults) love dipping into it and this can also be a great finger food for your baby to gnaw on while the main meal comes. Hard breadsticks are considered a phase 0 food on the Texture Timeline™, so it’s perfect for beginner eaters too! If this isn’t an option, or you’d prefer not to feed them bread, this is the perfect time to pull out those snacks you brought from home!
Don’t forget to grab the Ultimate Snack Guide so you can have a complete list of snack ideas, perfect for packing when dining out as a family!
If you’re worried your toddler’s food will come out scalding hot, ask the server to have your little one’s food cooked before everyone else to ensure there is enough cooling time, and again, so they won’t have to wait to eat. While your food is still cooking, your baby’s food can cool down in the kitchen and then be served with everyone else’s food!
What to do WHEN THE FOOD COMES
Set up the food on their plate first
If you need to pull pieces of food off an adult’s plate or off the plate that contains your baby’s or toddler’s meal and put it directly on their high chair or on their suction mat, for example, do it right away before strapping your child into their chair. Any food or size of food modifications that need to be made should also be done beforehand.
For older toddlers and preschoolers, I would recommend asking for a small side plate to serve their food on (if you didn’t bring something from home). This is because the large amount of food they may be served could be overwhelming to them, so breaking it down into smaller portions and serving it to them on a side plate can be helpful (it also cools faster!). And then they have the option to refill their side plate with food from their main plate, as desired.
Include your child in the conversation at mealtime
Even if your little one doesn’t talk yet, just like at home, make them feel included in the conversation at the table. This doesn’t mean constant attention to them, feeling like you have to entertain them or praise their every bite. Rather, just check in with them every so often and ask “Are you happy?” or “How’s that taste?” or “Wow you’re doing great!”.
For toddlers and older children, have real conversations with them and go back to the games I mentioned earlier when trying to keep kids occupied while waiting for your food (I Spy, or Would You Rather…?). Our favorite thing to play was “Would You Rather” and my boys looked forward to it every time we went out to eat. When we were in Spain on vacation and my husband and I wanted a beautiful dinner with real fancy adult food, we were able to have the boys entertained and engaged for a full two hours playing that game and talking about their thoughts on different topics!
Ask for the check
If you want to be able to exit whenever your child is done eating and not have to hang around for longer than necessary, this is a go-to move. As soon as your food is brought over, ask that they bring the check over as well so you can be ready to go when your toddler is (just in case that’s in the middle of a meltdown).
WHAT TO ORDER
You choose what
Remember that you, as the adult, should be choosing what the menu will be for your child – yes – even at a restaurant. Especially if your child isn’t able to read or if you’ve set the expectation that Mom or Dad will choose the menu, you can do this for them easily up until age 5 or 6.
This ensures you can provide them with an option that is safe, ideally balanced (or not if YOU decide it’s ok), and fits within your budget! It also keeps in line with the division of responsibility practice that hopefully you’re implementing with them at home too!
If you’d like to offer some choice in the matter, give them 2 options to choose between. The fewer the options, the better.
Be mindful of salt and sugar
Looking for low salt, sugar, and safe foods for your child can be tough when eating out. However, here are some suggestions that may help:
- Ask for your child’s portion to be unsalted.
- Ask for sauces and dressings to be on the side. If there are simple salad dressings like oil & lemon or balsamic vinegar (alone – not the pre-made dressings), those will be great options for salad toppings.
- Ask for ketchup to not be brought to the table if you don’t want your toddler to be having added sugars in their dips.
- See if you can ask for other dips like mustard, hummus, tzatziki, guacamole, or pesto (keeping in mind that for babies these may all be added sodium sources).
- Remove the skin off any chicken (for safety and also this is where most of the salt would be).
- Ask if pasta sauces, soups, etc. are housemade, canned, or come from a manufacturer. Non-housemade items are bound to have exponentially more salt and/or sugar.
Honestly though – just be prepared for the extra salt or sugar intake! It is what it is – don’t stress too much, especially if it’s not a frequent event. Limit added salt and sugar throughout the day for your little one to keep things balanced. If dining out is infrequent, one meal with excess salt or added sugar isn’t going to ruin their health in the grand scheme of things, and the experience brings lots of positives in other ways!
A DIETITIAN’S FAVORITE RESTAURANT MEAL ORDERS FOR TODDLERS
Now that we’ve gone through the basics and provided you with a step-by-step plan so you’re prepared to tackle eating out with a toddler with ease, let’s review some of my favorite dishes to order for children at restaurants.
- Eggs (omelet, over hard, boiled, etc.)
- Toast with peanut butter
- Oatmeal (ask for no toppings or toppings on the side so you can add what you like)
Lunch or dinner dishes
- Beef or veggie burger (deconstructed for babies and young toddlers. You can even break apart the burger with the back of a fork and mix it into avocado to feed to your baby with a spoon).
- Rotisserie chicken (remove skin).
- Grilled fish (salmon, haddock, etc.).
- Pasta or lasagnas (ask for no sauce, light sauce, no cheese, etc. these are usually really customizable).
- Stir fry with shrimp, tofu, or chicken (ask them to cook veggies longer for baby).
- Tacos, fajitas, burritos, quesadillas (deconstruct for babies and young toddlers and remove condiments like sour cream).
- Grilled chicken, kofta, braised beef, short ribs, shrimp skewers.
- Seafood chowders or hearty stews (remove the fillings from the broth and serve separately for babies).
- Steak (cut in very small pieces for toddlers or serve in super large thick handheld pieces for baby).
- Mussels, scallops, shrimp (slice thinly or dice very small).
- Indian curries (ask for less spicy versions).
- Sushi (if you don’t feel comfortable with raw fish for kids over 2 years old, offer sweet potato sushi rolls, cucumber maki, California rolls, edamame, or spring rolls. Deconstruct for babies under 18 months of age and coach older kids to bite into each piece of sushi).
- Pizza (try choosing ones with exciting toppings if at a fancier place, like artichokes, caramelized onions, or mushrooms, and avoid processed meats).
- Grilled cheese sandwich or deconstruct a more robust sandwich like a turkey club (remove the bacon).
- Baked, roasted, or mashed potatoes
- Rice, quinoa, or couscous
- Salad (offer large pieces of tomato or other safe-to-eat toppings like egg, cheese, etc. to baby)
- Steamed veggies (peas, corn, broccoli, carrots, green beans, etc.)
- Fresh spring rolls or bruschetta
To learn more about how to safely serve all of the foods above, how to deconstruct typical family meals, and for videos on serving these foods in every phase of my signature Texture Timeline™, check out my Baby Led Feeding online course!
Bonus tips when ordering for babies and toddlers
Get them fries!
If everyone else at the table is getting something that comes with fries, let them have that option too as a “fun food”. This is especially true if eating out is less frequent, and this would be a safe food for them. You want them to enjoy this experience and really grow to view eating out at a restaurant as a positive, fun experience so that as they grow older it’s something fun you can do together.
It also helps eliminate the need for you to field the question “Can I have one of your fries mom?” every 5 seconds.
Look for components of meals in other dishes
So if they have a pear and ricotta pizza, ask for an additional side of pears. Or if they have a beet and goat cheese salad, ask for a side of beets!
This is particularly useful when bringing a young baby out to a restaurant with you because it may not be necessary to order them a full meal for them to eat. You may be able to get by with feeding them some of your meal or asking for these additional sides to your meal that can be given to them. Remember, babies don’t care what combos of food you offer them – it can be completely random!
And with that, you have everything you need to conquer dining out with your little eater, and I’m confident you’ll be able to actually enjoy that time as a family as well!
If you’re struggling with any other aspects of feeding your toddler, from setting up mealtimes for success at home, to implementing the division of responsibility and managing or preventing picky eating – I’ve got you covered! Get started with my Feeding Toddlers online course now to implement my step-by-step strategies that will have you experiencing happier mealtimes with your toddler!