How to Go Out to Eat With a Toddler

Eating at restaurants is a big priority to us. I know many fellow moms who swear off eating out saying, “It’s not worth it.” Which I get … sometimes it is NOT worth it, hahaha. For my husband and I, though, as we both work from home, eating out is a necessity some days. We do eat at home more often than we did before Nova, but there are still many days when we finish our work and just need to get out of the house.

When we were in China (adopting Nova), we basically ate out for every meal (mostly at hotel buffets, LOL). So when we arrived home after our first few weeks with Nova we decided to keep going out pretty close to every day (it was easier then because we had maternity leave) and got her into the routine of eating out and being adaptable about the kind of places we’d go (so we didn’t get stuck in a rut).

After several months of trial and error, we developed this backpack method that has helped us SO much. We’ve been doing it about a year now.

It’s basically a distraction bag that we only use for restaurants. It stays in our car at all times so we always have it when we need it. We add new things to it every few months and phase out anything she isn’t interested in. Because this bag works so well we’ve been able to use it instead of an iPad and now her iPad is only for long car rides and plane rides.

Here are the basics of what we keep in our bag:

Cards. Nova LOVES her cards. These are her most played with toy, besides drawing. Emma gave her this deck of rainbow playing cards last summer and she’s been playing with them ever since (pretty sure they’re half lost by now but that’s OK).

The cutest sticker book of all time.

And honestly, a good old-fashioned blank sketchbook with markers is Nova’s absolute favorite.

I don’t really bother putting books in her bag anymore because they make it really heavy and don’t keep her entertained as well as these other items (we love to read at home, just not in restaurants).

OK, I’m passing this post off to Laura now so she can share her eating out tips with you too! Take it away, Gummergal!

Laura: Having a younger toddler than Elsie does means that we have some different challenges when eating out with our 22-month-old. Lola has only just gotten to the age where she’s interested in markers or coloring within the past three months, so we’ve added a little to-go coloring pack to her diaper bag (similar to this but ours just has crayons) for when we need a distraction at the table, and we also love these water painting books (they are like magic!) and these mess-free markers too. I usually have some stickers in her bag as well since that’s become a recent activity too. I will say though, for the most part of the last year, we have not spent a lot of time at a “regular” restaurant having a full meal together and I think that has a lot to do with Lola’s personality and age range. It’s normal for babies to start to want to be down on the floor more once they start early walking, and ever since Lola figured out how to cruise around on her own, she’s hasn’t stopped since! She is definitely one of those “busy” toddlers for sure, so I have found myself in that “it’s not always worth it” category when it comes to eating out lately.

At home, it’s pretty easy for us to have sit down meals where she sits in her chair, eats well, and will even hang out in her high chair and “talk” to us when she’s done for a while. But she gets really distracted when we go out to eat by all the new faces she wants to say hello to and corners of the room she wants to explore, so it can be a challenge. It’s also hard to get her to actually eat (even food I know she likes) when we are out because she would rather get down and explore than eat. I think now that she’s really into coloring and other more stationary things for longer periods we’ll be trying more meal outings to get her used to staying seated for meals out as well. We used this travel high chair a lot when going out before she really fit snugly into normal high chairs and we keep it in the car for places that don’t have them available.

During the past year, a lot of our food outings have mostly been at places that have grass areas or open courtyards attached so Todd and I can sit and have coffee and a treat while she makes friends and pets dogs nearby. Winter has been rough on that plan, to say the least, but we’ve taken her to coffee shops that have couches and coffee tables where she can color and wander around a little bit while we sit and that’s gone pretty well too. I think I’m going to try adding some animal cards to the bag as well since she loves to point at animals and make their sounds, so that could be a good table distraction. If you have a busy baby that’s in that gotta-move-around-stage too, let me know what your tricks are for meals out!

Credits // Authors: Elsie Larson and Laura Gummerman. Photography: Elsie Larson. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • Where is that adorable toy camera from?

    Love the idea of a special backpack. We’ve done something similar, but it was not exclusive to eating out which definitely makes the toys more special.

  • We bring a few treasures to play with – often long forgotten toys that live in the diaper bag! The water painting books have been great for years. I got the tip not to sit/buckle littles ones into their seat until the food is there. When possible, we let our toddler kneel in a booth or sit on our laps until it is actually eating time. We often go for Mexican since it is pretty fast to come out and not a quiet restaurant! We ask him to tell doggie/batman/his baby sister the rules of eating at a restaurant. The pre-schooler repeating it aloud is for him but it feels more like info sharing than us always dictating rules, rules, rules.

    • I LOVE the idea about having your older one inform the younger ones about the rules. Genius!

      I will be honest, we definitely have resorted to a phone, but we really try to keep this for after eating, when we’re out to eat for an extended period of time for the purpose of visiting with people. We usually stick to kid-friendly establishments with outdoor eating space, which is pretty easy here in Southern California.

      Thanks for the tips!
      Lindsey
      http://www.beautifulbravery.com

  • I feel like I fail at a lot of parenting (ha!) but I am pretty proud that our 3-year-old son is awesome when we’re at restaurants and cafes. He loves eating out and he generally behaves pretty well (as well as a 3-year-old can behave!) but when he was around 2 we did go through a pretty rough patch where he just didn’t have the patience to sit for too long when we went out.
    It soooo helps if you manage to find kid-friendly cafes sometimes. We have one near us with a big cubby house full of toys, and fake grass to ride tricycles around on, and I am probably there almost every week to meet with other mum friends! Haha.

  • We like to bring our own food for our daughter as well. Frozen Peas, berries, cut up meat. We also have a dinning backpack and don’t use an ipad or phone. The rare occasion that she gets a happy meal, I take the toy our ahead of time and put in the backpack for the next dinner out. She has no clue that the toys come from the meal, and she’s 5.

  • Good tips! It’s not easy, but it’s usually worth it.

    Our 2.5 year old does better sitting on his own and in laps, so we’ve been skipping the high chair / booster for over a year now. We also sit in eyesight of the trash bin so we can have him throw stuff away if he gets too fidgity.

    He rarely eats in restaurants, so we give him dinner before we leave. No hunger meltdowns and he’s at least eaten some fruit.

    We let him pick out a few toys whenever we’re leaving the house (he always picks cars and trains), so he’ll play with those, and then whatever I have stashed in the diaper backpack. We also have a roll of painters tape to tape coloring book pages to the table, which makes it easier for him to color.

  • Choose restaurants wisely! Order an app if it’s not an establishment that offers chips or bread for your kiddo to munch on from the get go (even if that means you don’t order them their own meal and they just share with you or each other)…. and with little littles don’t buckle them until it’s time to eat so they have minimal time to sit still. We always ask for a booth too so our three kids have some freedom to switch seats and wiggle more freely without being quite so disruptive to other dinners. And once kiddos are potty trained try to take a bathroom break right before you expect food to come out. When I forget this I almost always eat cold food because their little bladders are full from the drink they downed while waiting and it hits them right when our food arrives. The toddler years are a season, you are doing great!

  • My son Miles is 16 months and the absolute BEST thing that we do when we all go out to eat is ask for the check as soon as we order. That way he’s distracted during the first part by being in a novel place, coloring, playing with sugar packets, whatever. Then we’re all distracted by food, and once it’s gone, we can just go! (This is also very helpful when meltdowns threaten and we need to leave quickly. ) Honestly this is my #1 favorite tip EVER.

    • My husband and I do the same with our two kids! I hate when we forget and the kids are restless/ready to meltdown and our server is MIA!🤪

  • Love the article very much! We did. just the same when our daughter was a toddler. In her Backpack we had a small metal case, filled with magnetic geometrical forms made of Wood. She loves to play with it, and trying to combine to make figures. A little bit like a tangram.
    Best regards from Germany
    Bea

  • Love this post! My daughter is 2.5, we find that playdoh is great to keep her distracted at restaurants. Definitely adding coloring book and those adorable flash cards to our mix ASAP!

  • These are all good tips!
    We usually ask the server to bring the kiddies meals out as soon as they are ready as it distracts them / they take longer to eat than us.
    We play eye spy, “eye spy with my little eye something the colour of…”
    Disney snap cards, can also play pairs are useful. Water painting books or her magna doodle to play Pictionary.
    M 3 year old also loves making cards so I have coloured paper and envelopes – birthday cards for whoever’s birthday happens to be next or a thank you card to our waiter/tress is a cute little activity.

  • This post is so helpful! Just ordered the water coloring books. My 20 month old has been coloring all over our furniture and walls with crayons. She is also a handful at restaurants. Thank you! 🙂

  • We always took a little set of stackable plastic play cups when we went out, kept both my kiddos entertained for AGES. When they got bored stacking we could pop raisins in one for a snack or hide a couple under a cup and do a shuffling/guessing game. The trick was to only ever use them out and not at home so they didn’t get bored of them. Also, the water colouring books were a life saver!

  • I do not have kids but I have experienced this struggle when babysitting! I used to be a waitress and we always kept coloring books and crayons on hand for bored kiddos! Thanks for sharing, great post.

    -Kate
    https://daysofkate.com

  • As a family of soon to be 5, who hasn’t slowed down on eating out even after the first one was born, what we find most depressing is how many people resort to zombifying their children with any and all electronic gadgets. We were puzzled by it long before having children too; going out for any kind of meal and being the only couple who doesn’t end up spending quality time with their respective phones.
    Doing anything with children is not that difficult, provided expectations have been adjusted and children are treated like adults.

  • I am one of those parents that is blessed with two good behaving girls in public (and at home too 🙂 ). We usually go to a local pancake house where they get coloring pencils and a big piece of paper. But I really like the idea of that backpack!

    I only make sure we don’t go out too late, waiting for food when tired is just never a good idea with young kids.

  • My daughter is only 7 months old, but I am filling this away for future reference. Thanks for the tips! I’m sure these will be helpful soon!

  • Aw this post takes me back to when my 2 were tots and there was no option of iPhone or iPad! We had the ‘bag of tricks’ – basically a teeny tiny backpack that they could carry filled with those water colour books, miniature puzzles, crayons, tiny books & characters or teddy. Happy times! I also totally recommend taking your tot for wee walkabout to explore during the wait for food. Thanks Elsie & wishing you lots of luck & love with your imminent arrival – I’m sure Nova will be a fantastic big sister. Allie xxx

  • Guys, parenting win = bring kitchen shears. It makes cutting up restaurant food into kid-sized pieces SO much easier (we do this at home too!)

  • Great tips all around. I’m lucky that my kiddo loves being in a restaurant and loves eating that he isn’t too distracted.

    He has been super into dominos lately. He is too young to really set them up on his own but he loves it when I do nd he loved to sort/organize them.

  • We do this too! Another really good option for kids 3 and up – bring a small puzzle! This can occupy quite a bit of time and is fun for us dorky adults who love doing puzzles, too 😉

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