6 basic rules for eating out with a toddler

Dying for a decent feed and can’t find a babysitter? Here’s how to make it work.

Dad and toddler in restaurant

When I was a younger man, I used to eat out quite a bit.

Granted, it was mostly local establishments that weren’t too picky about their clientele — but as I got older, and my missus taught me that food was more than a thrice-daily exercise in re-fuelling, I began to enjoy good food. Expensive food.

But it wasn’t until our honeymoon that I really got the hang of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a meal for two people. In Italy, we ate at Osteria Francescana — one of the best restaurants in the world.

That was the time I literally cried a few tears at the table, because the food was f*cking spectacular, and I finally understood a really genuine lesson the woman I loved had been trying to teach me for years.

But during the transition from religiously ordering bangers and mash with pepper sauce at the pub to perusing the menu with a more seasoned eye, there was one thing that gave me the shits.

And that was parents who insisted on turning up with babies and/or toddlers, who would scream themselves hoarse, throw cutlery and gleefully shit themselves right there at the table, while I was trying to eat.

I hated those parents. And I hated those children. But then I had kids of my own — and, predictably enough, I became one of those parents.

Now I was on the other side, I’ll admit to feeling a certain level of social awkwardness when we’d arrive at a restaurant in those early days. Plonking our first boy Blake (and later Laurence) into those white-plastic high chairs and attempting the usual ‘stroller origami’ before trying to find somewhere to stash the pram.

It was never a relaxing evening. Usually about halfway through dinner, Blake would completely lose his mind.

About 10 minutes later, Laurence would shit himself, prompting a mad dash to the bathroom to change him before the pervasive funk of a well-soiled nappy ruined the bouquet of whatever Chardonnay was on everyone else’s table.

With the nappy changed, Blake usually gave us about another 10 minutes before it all fell apart again. At which point I would start frantically waving my credit card at the waiter while screaming silently for takeaway containers so we could salvage what was left of the dinner once we got home.

It sucked. But through trial and error, we figured out the right way to dine out with the kids by sticking to six basic rules:

1. Pick the right restaurant

Make sure the restaurant is kid-friendly. If you are not sure, make a few visits beforehand. If you rock up early in the evening and it’s all dimmed lighting and couples holding hands, then come back another time without the little ones.

2. Eat when the doors open

Book the earliest available table because a toddler won’t make it past 8.30pm in a restaurant without howling like a wounded Viking. The trick is get in, get your food, enjoy it, and get the hell outta there as quick as you can.

3. Order when (or even before) you sit down

The faster their food appears, the easier your night will be so it’s worth notifying the waiters that you’d like the food (the little ones’ and yours) to arrive quickly.

Do your homework and figure out what the kids will eat by looking up the menu online before you arrive.

That way, you can walk in the door, sit down, ask for the ‘nuggets and chips’, your dinner and a glass of wine or a beer for yourself, safe in the knowledge that you’ve averted the first of the evening’s ‘I’m bored as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’ tantrums.

4. Arm yourself with distractions

It sounds obvious, but it works … even the crankiest little bundle of joy can be bought off with a shiny toy while you enjoy your lobster bisque or your perfectly-cooked steak.

Bring some (siltent) toys they love or, as a last resort, give them your tablet or phone to watch something while you enjoy your meal. Just make sure it can be watched with the sound on low because an iPad blasting the Mario Brothers theme music will upset everyone … even you.

5. Be ready to run at a moment’s notice

Have the credit card ready to go within a second of the night going pear-shaped. Just let your missus know the plan well beforehand. I remember one evening when my boys went nuts, we all panicked our way out of the restaurant … only to realise later we hadn’t settled the bill (and had to sheepishly return the next day to pay).

Even better if you can pay upfront.

6. Try to enjoy yourself

Eating out doesn’t need to be a catastrophe. And it shouldn’t be one, either.

So don’t walk into the experience expecting the worst — you’ll be cranky before the entree arrives, and by the time you’re done eating you’ll be swearing that this is the last time you ever take the kids anywhere.

Bon appetit.

Get the best dad tips in your inbox