Eating Out with My Toddler Has Been an Unexpected Joy of Motherhood (Seriously!)

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

When my daughter Thea was born, my husband and I assumed we’d bid farewell, for a time, to the joys of good restaurants. I love going out to eat; for someone who works at home all day, it’s refreshing to go out once or twice a week and have a drink or check out a new restaurant. Having a kid meant that was all over, right? At least without exorbitant babysitter bills?

Nope! To my surprise, I enjoy (and appreciate) eating out even more that my daughter is in the picture.

The Pleasures of Eating Out, with Child

Eating out with a small child can be even more pleasurable than eating out on your own. What’s so fun about it? It’s watching the restaurant action through her eyes. I watch her watch other people, and flirt outrageously with the couple at the neighboring table. I watch her taste new foods, and be generally charming as only a tiny tot can be when there is dessert on the line.

I also love that I don’t have to worry about cooking or cleanup; I’m just giving her a hundred tastes of things off my plate or letting her raid the bread basket, enjoying the environment together.

I also am grateful to have the opportunity to teach her, from the earliest age, about the table manners that come along with eating out (yes, perhaps we are a little too lax about food on the floor at home?) and how to be considerate of others when in public.

The viewpoint of that little face, sometimes practically eye level with the table, is one that adds a whole new dimension to my own experience of eating out and the social and edible pleasures of restaurants. To be frank, I feel so much more engaged and less likely to take either the opportunity or the food for granted.

But Hey, Wait Up. Isn’t It Rude to Eat Out with a Baby?

I love watching comments on threads about eating out with kids (and by love I mean scan with exasperation and amusement, of course). Everyone has an opinion on rowdy youngsters and their effects on a grownup night out. Is it rude to take a kid anywhere but McDonald’s or establishments with a rubber floor and skeeball on the premises?

No. Not if you handle it with good judgment.

I use careful judgment on when and where to take my daughter out to eat. It’s a treat, of course — we’re not eating out every night! — and I want it to be a good experience for all of us and everyone in our vicinity.

A couple rules of thumb on picking a time and place:

  • Pick the right time: We almost always aim for low-traffic times. This goes triple for nicer restaurants. I would never take my child to a fine dining establishment for dinner, but for lunch — yes!
  • Follow the high chair rule: I check to see whether the restaurant has high chairs or boosters. If they do, that is a tacit invitation to children. If they don’t, I would probably avoid.

There are certainly inappropriate circumstances for a small child. We were on vacation this spring and while I wanted to try the 8-table, white-tablecloth special-occasion restaurant in the small beach town, I judged that this was too much of a gamble and might disrupt the atmosphere. Instead we went to a bustling upscale seafood restaurant on the water, where we balanced our daughter on our knees at the bar, letting her watch and wave at every patron who entered.

We have made other judgments, depending on the circumstances. Some fine restaurants just have a spirit of welcome towards children (my friend who just visited Denmark told me that every restaurant there — up to and including Noma — would happily accommodate children).

Last winter, as an extremely special treat, we took her to Chez Panisse Cafe, the upstairs, more casual side of Alice Waters’ high temple of California cuisine. I felt comfortable doing this because Chez Panisse — while illustrious — sees itself plainly as a neighborhood affair, welcoming of all occasions and ages. We also went for a late lunch, when the restaurant wouldn’t be too busy or formal. They brought out the most beautiful polished wood booster seat for her, seated us in a booth, and my husband and I squeezed in and watched her like like hawks. It was one of my favorite memories of that time in her life, all dressed up and sipping soup in a place that has inspired me so much.

So I guess I’m a risk-taker when I think that a restaurant will be welcoming and I think Thea is well-rested and ready for a little adventure. (And if I’m wrong? We beat a hasty retreat, with one of us taking her outside and the other of us briskly paying the check.)

3 Essentials for Dining Out with Children

But no matter how well-behaved my child promises to be, eating out is made possible to these three essentials. I always have them with me — whether we’re at a barbecue joint or a white-tablecloth restaurant.

1. A huge bib with a huge pocket. Not a little one. Not a petite charming cloth bandanna. Nope. A huge bib that shows we mean business about keeping ourselves neat, and that will absorb some of her crumbs.

2. Non-messy snacks. You can’t ever depend on someone else to feed your kid. She wants food now? Well look here — Mama has Cheerios and freeze-dried yogurt drops in her purse. Eating one Cheerio at a time is how the passage of time is marked for toddlers. I avoid anything messy or smeary; Cheerios are easily swept up or snatched up as we leave.

3. Massive tips. There is 15% tipping (cheapskate!), then proper tipping, and after that comes Tipping with Baby. We check under the table and pick up any really egregious food spillage. But no matter what, accommodating a family is a little more work and we make sure we express our gratitude to a server with a tip of at least 25% — and often more.

Ultimately, I always want to be sensitive and aware of our surroundings and never so into my own child that I neglect the effects of her loudness or crumb-scattering on others. But on the other hand, I think that little ones deserve to be a part of public life, and when I watch the grin she puts on people’s faces I think that sometimes we can be too afraid or abashed of what people will think of small tots. I’ve also found that in the best of restaurants, the staff takes pride and pleasure in creating a good experience for a child.

Seeing anything, even your asparagus soup, through the eyes of a small child, can enrich the experience. At least it does for me — a most unexpected perk and delight of motherhood.