When my oldest son was a newborn, I considered the day a success if I brushed my teeth and put on pants that weren’t pajamas.
Maybe you can relate to this zombie-like trance that new mothers experience during those early weeks. But after a while, it’s time to re-enter the civilized world.
You’re tired of burning dinner because the baby was crying (or is that just me?) and you’ve got your favorite delivery guy on speed dial.
It’s time put to on some pants and pick your favorite restaurant because I’m going to give you some tips that I’ve learned over the years about how to (successfully) go out to dinner with a baby.
How NOT to Eat Out with a Baby
My husband and I could hardly believe that the hospital let us take a tiny human being home without giving us a manual. We quickly realized how underprepared we were to care for this baby.
What were we supposed to do with him? Why is he always hungry? If he’s really so sleepy, why doesn’t he ever sleep? We were clueless.
After his one week check-up, my exhausted husband and I thought it would be easier to eat out than to go home and cook. We were so naïve.
We walked into the restaurant with no car seat, thinking we were about to enjoy our first meal as a family of three out in the real world. “I’ll just hold him in my arms” I thought. Mistake. I couldn’t eat.
We sat in a booth, even though we knew he would need to nurse soon. Mistake. I was too squished to comfortably feed him.
When he began to scream, the other diners stared – some with compassion, and others clearly annoyed. I had no clue what I was doing and it was painfully obvious to everyone there.
That little peanut is now a rowdy six-year-old with an even wilder little brother.
But now that I’ve got some experience under my belt, I hardly bat an eye when we dine out with our rambunctious crew.
Their baby sister, now five months, seems like a breeze compared to her brothers. Experience is the mother of wisdom, they say.
Learn from my experience and enjoy tonight’s dinner out, without all of my rookie mistakes.
10 Tips to Survive Eating Out With a Baby
1. Make Sure Your Baby Has a Seat
It may seem obvious, but one of the most important things to consider is this: where will my baby sit?
Please don’t make my mistake and try to hold your baby during the meal!
It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and you’re likely to drop pasta on your newborn’s face (guilty as charged). Just don’t do it.
If your baby is under 6 months and you have a detachable infant car seat, your best option is to just bring the car seat into the restaurant with you.
Babies can sit in a high chair when they can sit up on their own, which is typically somewhere around 4-6 months, though some babies may take longer.
But even if your baby is sitting up on his own, by the time you order, wait for the food, eat, and pay, he may tire of sitting and need to be held.
So hold off on the high chair until you are confident your little one can sit comfortably long enough.
Some restaurants may offer to flip over a wooden high chair to use as a stand for your car seat, but please do not do this. It’s far too easy for a waiter or customer to bump into and knock the car seat over, injuring your infant.
If your baby is old enough to sit on his own, take advantage of the restaurant’s high chair if they don’t have any available, bring your own.
This Summer Infant Pop and Sit Booster straps onto any standard chair and has a detachable tray in case the table is not the right height for your baby. It folds up to save space and can be used both indoors and outdoors.
2. Choose Your Table Wisely
Whether you seat your baby in an infant car seat or a high chair, you’ll need to make sure to avoid blocking the aisles of the restaurant, and you’ll also need a table large enough to accommodate a sippy cup, snacks, and any entertainment (more on that later) you may have brought with you.
Make sure to mention your preference to the hostess before you are seated, and if they seat you in a location that isn’t suitable, speak up!
If your little one is in a car seat, request a large booth. Most restaurant booths have enough space for the car seat to sit sideways, facing you.
Young babies are fascinated by your face and hands, so you’ll be close enough to keep baby entertained while still having the freedom of movement you’ll need to eat.
Bonus: booths are like tiny jails for little kids, so if you have other children, you can keep them contained in a booth and avoid them tipping chairs or standing in the aisles.
If you are breastfeeding and anticipate that you’ll need to nurse the baby while you’re out, be sure to choose a table with enough room to maneuver. And don’t make my mistake by eating out while you’re still figuring out the whole breastfeeding gig!
For something so natural, it doesn’t always come quite as naturally as you hope it will and you may not want an audience while you’re trying to adjust your baby’s latch again and again.
If you’re not comfortable nursing yet, then you may just need to order takeout for a while longer until you and baby get the hang of it.
3. Timing is Key!
Before you head out to a restaurant, ask yourself these very important questions: is my baby well rested? If he needs a nap, will he fall asleep without a fuss? If the answer is no, then reconsider your dinner plans!
Babies are creatures of habit and generally follow a predictable rhythm, sleeping at more or less the same times each day.
Some of you lucky parents were blessed with an angel baby that can sleep anywhere. You know the ones I’m talking about – they rub their little eyes take their paci happily, drifting off to sleep while you enjoy some adult conversation. This was NOT my child.
My first son would scream like a banshee when he was tired. Alert the press! Call the president! It’s a sleep emergency! What’s worse – he wouldn’t take a pacifier – ever.
We learned the hard way that if we wanted to eat out, we needed to do it on his schedule.
If he wasn’t well rested or our meal interfered with his nap or bedtime, there would be no such thing as a “nice, quiet dinner.” No, nobody at that restaurant was going to enjoy their dinner.
4. Bring Food for the Baby!
Patience is a learned skill, but perhaps sitting in a restaurant surrounded by other customers is not the time to try to teach it.
If your baby is already eating solid food, don’t assume that the restaurant will have food suitable for your baby, or if they do, that they’ll bring it fast enough to keep him from screeching like a hungry pterodactyl.
Reusable food pouches like these cute animal ones from Squooshi have been a lifesaver with our children.
You can make your own puree from whatever ingredients you like and fill the pouches again and again.
A six pack of reusable pouches costs less than a variety pack of pre-filled pouches from popular baby food brands. You don’t need a degree in math to see the savings add up.
5. Call Ahead
If you’re planning on dining at peak time, especially on a weekend, call ahead and reserve a table or place your name on the waiting list.
Be sure to explain that you have a baby and be clear about what kind of table you’ll be needing. Most restaurants should be able to accommodate your needs and if they can’t, choose another.
When they’re less busy you can call and speak to the manager explaining that until they can be more accommodating to families with young children, they’ve lost your business. Trust me, they’re all about those dollar signs.
If they have any business sense at all, they’ll make the necessary changes to keep their customers and you might even score a discount on your next meal!
6. Know the Menu
Even the sweetest baby can only wait so long. Save time by ordering when the waiter first comes to greet the table.
If it’s your favorite restaurant, you’ll already have an idea of what you like to eat, but if the place is a little less familiar to you, check online for the menu before you arrive.
When I waited tables in grad school at a high-end restaurant, the approximate wait time from seating to eating was 15-20 minutes, depending on how long the customer took to order, what they ordered, and how busy the kitchen was. You can cut out 5-8 minutes of wait time simply by knowing your order in advance.
7. Order Wisely
Save the ribs for date night when you’ve hired a sitter. When you’re dining with a baby, you’ll need to keep your hands clean.
Crab legs, BBQ ribs, and buffalo wings are just a few of the foods you’ll want to avoid. It always seems to be the cutest outfits that get stained by saucy fingers.
Order something that will allow you to keep your hands clean in case you need to feed or pick up the baby. And please, don’t let the baby get the habañero wing sauce in his mouth!
8. Keep Food and Drinks Out of Reach
Somewhere around 3 months, babies start reaching out for objects.
They’ll grab anything within their reach (goodbye, large earrings!) and immediately pull it towards their mouths to taste and feel. It’s great for their development, but not so great at the dinner table.
Help your waiter out by clearing space so he’s not tempted to put a hot plate within baby’s reach. It’ll keep your baby safe and save him the trouble of cleaning up a mess.
Keep any drinks or silverware well out of reach and only let your baby hold something that is safe to put in his mouth.
9. Call for Reinforcements!
Not every family has this option, but if you do – take advantage of it!
If you live near family, ask the grandparents if they’d be willing to watch your baby for an hour while you dine. Most grandparents appreciate the extra snuggles and you won’t be gone long enough for the baby to miss you.
Or, invite the family to join you. The more, the merrier! When the baby gets fussy, you can take turns walking around so that nobody is missing out on all the action.
10. Provide Entertainment – Without a Screen
If your baby is fed and well rested, they’ll want to be a part of the action!
Most babies can only pay attention to a toy or activity for 5-8 minutes, so you’ll need to have an arsenal of games and toys at your disposal.
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with several suggestions to entertain your baby at dinner and none of them involve a screen.
How to Entertain Your Baby at a Restaurant – Without a Screen!
While you may be tempted to prop up a tablet with an “educational” program that will keep your little one quiet, take a moment to reconsider.
You’ve probably seen studies showing that too much screen time is hazardous to your baby’s development, which is true, but my approach is a bit more philosophical.
Before the whole world had smartphones, families used to enjoy each other’s company. Children learned the rules of communication by listening to adult conversations.
Adults and children interacted with each other, talking about their day, asking questions, and telling stories.
Children would exercise their creativity by imagining that coasters were Frisbees (which would receive a quick rebuke!) or straws were telescopes.
Parents and children connected at the dinner table, and dinner time was family time.
Unfortunately, if you walk into any restaurant today you’ll see children with headphones in their ears watching YouTube or playing Minecraft.
Even the youngest children have a screen in front of them, keeping them quiet for just a few more minutes.
Let me encourage you to put away the phones and tablets and engage with your child, even the youngest of infants, at the dinner table with these six suggestions. It’s a little more work than turning on a tablet, but the time spent bonding yield a greater reward in the long run.
It’s an oldie but a goodie and every baby from 4 or 5 months to two years or older enjoys a classic game of peek-a-boo.
It’s great for cognitive development as it teaches object permanence, an important developmental milestone.
Likewise, songs with hand motions such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Pat-a-Cake” teach rhythm, rhyme, and hand-eye coordination.
Read a Book
Babies love bright and colorful pictures, especially those that have faces on them.
A touch and feel book like the popular Melissa and Doug crocodile feet book that gives your baby something to look at that will engage their senses as they look at the bright colors and feel the textures.
Talk About Objects on the Table
Even simple objects can be fascinating to a baby. Everything is new and wonderful in a baby’s world!
Talk about the objects on the table and if they are hard or soft, cold or hot.
If they are old enough, let them have a taste. Your baby can taste salt, a lemon slice, or even a bit of sugar (but not too much!).
You may want to try experimenting with the sounds objects make when tapped together – just be respectful of the noise level so you don’t disturb the other customers.
Everyday objects that may seem trivial to you can be used as teaching tools to help your baby discover the world around them.
Wash Your Hands Together
There’s not much that an older baby loves more than playing with water.
Take a trip to the bathroom and help your baby wash their hands. Try to lather up and make lots of bubbles.
It’s a great opportunity to change the scenery and give your baby a more sensory experience while also teaching them about hygiene.
Give Them a Quiet Toy
Young babies especially love toys with contrasting colors and textures.
This Manhattan Toy teether has bright colors, rattles when baby shakes it, and is easy to grasp.
Try to avoid battery operated toys with loud music or sounds that could disturb other customers. Save those for home and keep two or three quiet toys handy just for when you’re out.
By only pulling them out when you’re in public, they’ll feel new and keep your baby’s attention longer than a toy from home that they play with every day.
Take a Short Walk
Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery to keep your baby entertained.
Many nice restaurants have mirrors, fountains, mosaics, or other décor that your baby will find more interesting than the table.
While you’re waiting for your food to arrive, take a few minutes to explore the surroundings, making sure not to interfere with other guests’ dining experience.
When you return to the table, your baby will be in a better mood and ready to return to their toys or books while you eat.
Eating out with a baby doesn’t have to be hard if you’re prepared. Use these suggestions to plan ahead and enjoy your favorite restaurants again.