8 ways to survive eating at restaurants with a toddler

By Grace Koelma | Dare List Mama

If you're a parent, here's a fun little question: When's the last time you went out to a restaurant with your toddler?

When we lived in Australia, we only went out to dinner with Leo once a month, mainly when we were brave, optimistic or simply suffering from amnesia. (Haha!)

The rest of the time we got takeaway or cooked at home. Conveniently, this also saved us a fair bit of money, but the real reason was that we just couldn't face sitting in a restaurant, grimly counting the seconds until our food came out and trying to ignore the stares of other diners, while our kid did a classic Houdini routine on repeat, interspersed with high pitched squeals every time we placed him firmly back in his high chair. 

There's a fair bit of cognitive dissonance that occurs when parents plan on going out for dinner with their toddler/s in tow, usually found in the desperate space between hating the thought of staying at home eating last night's leftovers AGAIN, and the terrifying picture of eating out at a restaurant. 

But going to restaurants with a toddler doesn't have to be painful.

While in Bali, we ate out almost every night for a month because it was cheaper than cooking for ourselves. The local produce markets usually sold out by 6am ​(yes, that's AM!), and even if we made it there in time - no mean feat with a small human - we paid tourist prices. Good quality meat was hard to come by as well, and so the path of least resistance soon became clear.

Here's how it went down in our first week eating out in Bali...

We battled our toddler constantly, attracted plenty of curious stares and left feeling exhausted and frustrated. But then, through trial and error, we figured out a few ways to make eating out a relatively painless ​experience. We even began to enjoy it and actually savoured the exotic new flavours!

1. Get there early

The trick is to find the restaurants that stay open between the lunch and dinner service. This depends on the country you're in - in Europe many restaurants close for afternoon siesta and don't open until late, whereas in Asia, most are open from 7am to very late at night!

We often arrive at restaurants around 4.30-5pm. There are a few advantages with this plan:

  • We can have an afternoon out in the CBD or tourist centre, followed by an early dinner, instead of returning home first and going out later. Saves on taxi/Uber fares and means we still have energy for eating out. It can be hard to motivate yourself to go out once you've gone home and had your afternoon chill out time/nap (if you're lucky!)
  • Restaurants are virtually empty at 5pm which means food arrives quickly and you don't have other diners staring if your little person starts to lose it. 
  • Toddlers tend to get progressively more difficult as the day wears on. Early dinner = happier toddler.
  • You often underestimate how long it takes to finalise the bill, walk to your car, public transport or hail a taxi and get home. Eating early means you have a good buffer afterwards for getting home with minimal whinging!

2. Order before the waitress seats you

Ever been to a restaurant, taken your seat and then realised with a sinking feeling that you're in the waiter's 'blind spot'? Every time you try to catch one of the waitstaff's eye, they look past you. You pretty much need a neon sign and a marching band to get their attention.

The way to get around this is to pre-choose your first dish or starter, depending on the cuisine, then order it while the waitress is seating you, even before you've looked at the menus.

Using this strategy and eating at 5pm at restaurants, we often get food on the table within 5-10 minutes of sitting down. And once your kid has food on his/her plate, you're free to actually get a look at the menu. 

The other option is to order the local (non-alcoholic) beverage speciality first, which should come out quickly. Leo loved the fresh juices in Asia in particular.

Delicious raw food tasting plate - a winner with toddlers!

So, for example, if you're in Italian restaurant, order a Margherita pizza or garlic bread. ​Some other ideas are:

  • Nasi Goreng in Indonesia
  • Spring rolls in China
  • Healthy dip (Leo loves Hummus) and vegetable sticks at a raw food/vegan restaurant
  • Pad Thai or fish cakes in Thailand
  • Butter chicken in India
  • Nacho chips and guacamole in Mexico
  • Sushi rolls in Japan

3. Get a portable high chair cover

Portable high chairs truly are lifesavers for travelling parents.

There are a lot of options for portable high chairs (Where's Sharon has a great wrap up list) but we decided to choose a cloth chair cover with shoulder straps, which we purchased from eBay. 

Leo using his cloth high chair in the airport food court.

Pros - We love this chair cover (we chose a dark colour to hide stains) because it wraps up into a little cloth drawstring bag that fits easily in our backpack, and the straps keep Leo in his chair... though if I'm truthful, they work better before 6pm, after that all bets are off with our little Houdini! See point 1 about eating early.

Cons - The portable high-chair's pillowslip design means it can only fit over chairs of a certain width and back height. But we bought a few long multi-purpose buckle straps which we use to fasten it onto any straight-backed chair.

4. Choose a novelty restaurant with entertainment

You know those restaurants you may have avoided as young adults, the ones that seemed tacky and overpriced? Now is the time to embrace the gaudy gimmicks! At minimum, when you're doing restaurants with a toddler, a live fish in a tank is a win. And the bigger (both the fish and the tank) the better. Neon lights, fire twirlers and cool decor are wonderful distractions too. The bigger chain restaurants sometimes hire party entertainers (magicians and balloon artists), which somewhat make up for the greasy, sub-par food.

Restaurants with traditional dancers are another great option, and are mostly found in resorts and dense tourist areas. If you find a restaurant whose food and atmosphere you love, make sure you ask if they have regular entertainment on certain nights.

5. See if the restaurant has an upstairs dining area

It's amazing how many restaurants we've visited have a little-known upstairs or rooftop section. Maybe it's a courtyard outside or a sneaky back room that no one knows about. The pros for finding a spot like this are that it's usually a lot quieter and potentially has room for your child to stretch their legs in between courses.

The con is that being out of sight of the busiest part of the restaurant, you may also be out of mind. If you're a return visitor though, you'll know your favourite dishes and can order as you're seated, then enjoy the peace and quiet away from the masses.

A classic example of a deserted upstairs section.

6. Choose your demographic wisely

Know your limitations and save the five course degustation meal with matching wines for a baby-free night.

There are toddler-friendly restaurants and their are 3-star Michelin restaurants. Usually, the two don't converge. If you're pounding the pavement on the hunt for a good place to eat, check out the type of clientele inside (a little hard to do if you're dining early!) or, if in doubt, do the 'baby-friendly litmus test' - ask the waitress if there's a high chair available.

The fanciest restaurants rarely offer baby seats, which is a clear sign they'd rather not deal with an erratic, food-hurling toddler.

7. Bring a bib, water bottle and cutlery.

We have a restaurant 'Go Bag', a little lunchbox with a set of plastic cutlery, a plastic plate and bowl, CamelBak water bottle and a silicone bib (we love the scoop-bottomed Tommee Tippee Explorer ones - so easy to wash and re-wear).

Even if we're planning on eating out, I always pack a few 'in-between' snacks too... things like plain crackers or corn thins, dried fruit, muesli bars or fresh fruit. This can be just the thing to get you through an uncharacteristically long wait for entrees or mains when your navigating restaurants with a toddler.​

8. Pack a few small toys

Also in my restaurant 'Go Bag' are a small selection of little toys that can save the day while you're waiting, and prove a great distraction if you've got a wannabe high chair Houdini.

For our automobile-obsessed son Leo, I usually pack matchbox cars, a helicopter, a little board book on transport and a small pad of paper and Sharpie texta for drawing. He also has a few battery powered plastic beetles that run along the table when you flick a switch. Pick your child's (smallest) favourite toys and you can't go wrong. 

We love the pad of paper because it's so versatile. If we don't have the specific train, rocket ship, or aeroplane Leo wants, we just draw it. He loves giving us instructions and seeing the pictures come to life (you can see a couple of our drawings in the raw food photo above.) If you need to up-skill on your drawing, the free YouTube channel Art for Kids Hub is a great place to learn.

What are your number one tips for surviving a restaurant meal with little ones? Share by commenting below!

Grace Koelma

Grace is a writer, designer, digital nomad, mum (otherwise known as toddler chaser), slow traveller, wild things appreciator, culture immerser, coffee opportunist... She frequently uses big words (some of which are definitely made up), likes long walks and even longer books, and her focus on wellness in 2017 means she is learning to obey her FitBit. Except when she's glued to her computer!

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