5 Mothers On Eating Out With Kids

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I know you're not supposed to give new parents unsolicited advice but I often slip and tell them to get out while you can.  Like out, out.  It's the few months in parenting when those little people are sleeping more than they're awake and happy to snooze while you hang at your favorite brunch or dinner spot.  Cut to now and sometimes I feel like a champion while Bodie sits sweetly and eats well side by side at our go-to spot (here, in case you're in the neighborhood).  Other times I can't pull toys and snacks out fast enough to keep him hanging.  Similar to travel, dining out is something many of our generation of mothers enjoy too much and are committed to being able to still enjoy as a family. We're picking up our 5 Mothers On series for 2018, with these wise women below and their ideas (including ideal times, etiquette and specific activities and toys) for how to set yourselves up for success for pleasant outings for everyone.  Yes, it's a bit of a science but well worth it - especially in the Winter when the right restaurant can be a welcome change of scenery.

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Laura, mother to two, Brooklyn, New York

Dining out with a newborn is significantly easier in my opinion than dining out with a toddler! One and a half seemed to be the hardest stage, now that Joey is two he’s a bit easier to entertain since he’s more interactive and will eat off of the menu and if necessary we can entertain him with some screen time.  We always try to hold off on the screen time as long as possible and use it as a last resort because once it comes out it’s very hard to take away without a toddler fit.   

My son loves the bread basket, so we often ask for that right away, we also try to order his meal pretty quickly so that eating becomes his entertainment.  

We almost always bring along Joey’s backpack when we go out to eat, it’s filled with little toys he can play with, small plastic dinosaurs are a current favorite, his old favorite was those bright colored plastic bath toys which were super easy to throw in his diaper bag or my bag (always funny when I get to a client meeting and find a small plastic animal in my bag when looking for a pen).  

Allie is so much easier as a newborn to “entertain” while dining out.  I often wear her when we go to a casual restaurant so that I have my hands free or she’ll nap in her stroller if the restaurant allows strollers.  All we need to keep her entertained is some milk and a pacifier.  

We always have to time our meals out - we learned the hard way not to bring Joey right after a nap or after a long drive.  He’s a very active child and needs some time to run around before sitting down at a restaurant.  I often let him walk to the restaurant if it’s close enough and if not, we’ll take the stroller but let him out to walk as we get closer.  

And know when to throw in the towel - we were on vacation this past summer  - one night after traveling we went to a restaurant across from our hotel but Joey was just too tired, and my husband and I were exhausted too, as Joey started to break down we decided it was best to take our food back to our room to eat instead.  

Katie, mother to one (Founder of Witten Kitchen), New York, NY

Around 1 years old, things get a little trickier and you've got to be more creative when getting them to sit and enjoy a meal. If you're nervous or get anxious with a baby in a restaurant, start out by going to shorter meals (breakfast or quick lunch) and then as you get more used to it, try to go out for weekend brunch. People are much less irritated by babies during the day, so you won't be as nervous with every little noise or fuss they make. I've got a restaurant guide to some places that are easy to bring kids to for both brunch and an early dinner.

Keep a variety of toys/activities in your bag and only pull out one at a time. The novelty of a toy goes a long way. Just no toys that are loud and obnoxious! Small books, the Baby Genius mini books are great, small cars or trucks, and one of the best, longest lasting toys that I now always have is the Play Doh Starter kit. This may sound messy and annoying but its actually quite easy to control and keeps their attention for a longer period of time at meals than many other things. 

Snacks are always great for distraction, but beware, if you have a picky eater or a child who doesn't eat a lot (like mine!), this could mean you fill them up too quickly and by the time your meal comes, he/she is ready to go. That said, if you need something on hand - raisins, other dried fruits, or chewy snacks are good because they take a long time to eat. It can also work to order them something right when you're sitting down so they their meal while you're waiting. For example, I don't usually give Harry white bread, but if we are out and they have a bread basket, I let him choose and try whatever he wants. 

If your little one is getting restless after filtering through all the toys and snacks, take them on a little walk or outside for a short reprieve. Sometimes, like all of us, they just need a little break from the constraints and concentrations of sitting down. 

When dining out with my nieces, who are 6 years old, we love talking about special occasions or important events in their lives and then have them do a creative project, like draw a picture about the top. When kids get a little older, talking to them about food and what they are eating is also a great activity and something they can relate to. 

Lauren, mother to two, Long Island, NY

Dining out as a family has always been important to us and something we do often, this past weekend we were at brunch for 3 hours, so by the end we were marching around the communal table with Axel and he had greeted every patron, so some meals are great, and others are not the best.

The most challenging time was when the kids were going to bed around 6-6:30ish and would make going out to dinner with them awake impossible.

I usually have crayons, cars, and Shopkins or some kind of figurine in every single bag I own as well as some snacks in case they are STARVING when we actually get seated.

We build forts with sugar packets and we will all play with whatever toys make it onto the table! We make sure we order for them first and appetizers and drinks for us and we try to make sure they are not super hungry by the time we get there so they are not melting down when the waiter arrives at the table....

Laura, mother to two, San Francisco, CA

The most challenging stage to get out was about 10 months to 20 months. Encouraging right...a lovely 10 months of stressful dining.  It’s really once they are mobile and before they can really communicate that has been our tricky stage.

We always carry stickers and post-it notes! They're the smallest toys to carry and they entertain my 20-month-old and 3.5-year-old longer than any fancy toys I’ve ever bought. We keep the whole family entertained with snap chat filters...funny faces on the phone make us all laugh.

And puffs! My best friend taught me this trick and it works like a charm. This simple snack is easy to pack and they don’t fill up on them. I pour a small pile in front of them and they can practice counting while they snack and wait for their food (or watch us finish our meals).

Karla, mother to one, New York, NY

I am very into dining out with kids as I want Milo to learn how to behave in these environments, eat a varied diet and be used to restaurant life.

We persevered through the tricky ages (10-16 months were the hardest I would say) and now do it as a family once or twice on the weekends.

Meals out just myself and Milo are something I cherish, they remind me of maternity leave. They are getting easier, sometimes they are a nightmare but I try to not get discouraged.

We have a bit of a system down and try to find places where you can have a run around, go when he is hungry and when he isn't tired, sit him in the high chair only when the food comes to max time while we eat and become the speediest orderers!

We are very against the iPad when eating even in restaurants, Scott is actually even against toys so we don't do the distract to eat thing. I am OK with toys and coloring and we may resort to iPad when he is older, but trying for now! If he doesn't want to eat I don't force it and we just let him eat ours if he prefers.

We wanted to teach our kids to sit for the duration of the meal (we built up from 10 - 15 - 30 mins). 30 mins is his max, let's be real, so parents should choose restaurant and food orders accordingly - there ain't no sipping on wine and reading papers! We accept it as a different experience and enjoy it for what it is (plus we enjoy our dates and friends meals even more). Another thing I do is walk him over to the other kids and babies in restaurants, undoubtedly the parents start to chat and before you know it you have free entertainment!

As an aside someone needs to create a restaurant that caters for exactly this, we talk about it all the time. I might get on it!