Eating out with babies and toddlers

Eating out with a baby or toddler can be a stressful experience, so your choice of eatery is paramount. You’d be surprised by how many cafes and restaurants are welcoming to children, but there’s nothing worse than dealing with a grumpy/messy/loud baby or toddler while restaurant staff and other patrons give you evils. If you get a bad feeling about a place when you arrive with your offspring in tow, trust your gut and go somewhere else (if there are no other options available, apologise in advance, cross your fingers and grit your teeth). If in doubt – and it pains me to say this, because I’m a big cheerleader for independent businesses – opt for a chain, in the UK at least, as they tend to be child-friendly and well equipped.

A high chair isn’t essential, but having one will make your life considerably easier. If there’s not one available, pick a table with enough space to park your pushchair right up against it and leave your baby strapped in while you feed her. (Having the pushchair close by is helpful, even if you do have a high chair, as it means you’ve got everything to hand when you need it; it also avoids having to wake your little one up if she’s napping when you arrive.)

For trips away where you’re going to be eating out a lot – or if you know in advance that the venue has no high chair available – bring a portable high chair. Ones that clip onto the table are great because your baby will be at the right height, but they’re a pain to clean; plastic ones that strap onto the chair are easy to wipe down, but bulky to carry; and fabric ones that slip over the back of the chair are super light, but mean your baby will be at eye level with the table. Another option is a lap belt, which keeps her securely on your lap but allows you the use of your hands.

Check out the baby change situation before you commit – changing your little one on the floor of a toilet cubicle isn’t a pleasant experience, especially once she’s at the stage of trying to escape while you’re at it. If you’re travelling in the UK, the NCT has a handy app that shows you nearby restaurants (and other places) with baby change facilities.

I’ve never had an issue getting restaurant or café staff to provide hot water to heat up milk or baby food, but it’s best to ask about this as you’re being seated, just in case. Bringing food in from outside can feel a bit awkward, but I’ve never had any pushback on this either. The older the baby girl gets the odder it feels, so these days I try to order something for myself I know she’ll eat rather than lay out a baby food picnic. It’s worth bearing in mind though that restaurant food tends to be saltier than ideal for babies, particularly those under 12 months – fine now and again but not something you want to be doing every day.

It’s all rather simpler for smaller babies, so make the most of this stage, before your infant becomes an unruly toddler. Taking your baby in a sling (you can find my post on this piece of essential kit here) rather than a pushchair increases your options as you don’t need to worry about there being space to park it – and time it right and you might even get her to sleep through an entire meal.

The choice of table is important: if one of your party is breastfeeding, a chair with a back makes for a much more comfortable experience; and sitting with your back to the room allows for greater privacy while breastfeeding. (I’m very pro breastfeeding in public and in no way advocate women hiding themselves away while feeding their babies, but sometimes you’re just not in the mood to show your boobs to an entire restaurant.)

Wherever you’re sitting, consider your escape route for that moment when your baby kicks off and needs jiggling and pacing to calm down – assuming it’s not freezing cold or pouring with rain, outside, away from the gaze and eardrums of other diners, is often less stressful than in. In warm weather I’d always go for an outside table when given the option, for this very reason – in fact I’d go for an outside table with a bigger baby or toddler too, as there’s less of an issue of them making a mess outdoors.

Whatever the age of your child, it helps to manage your own expectations before you set off – meals out with babies and toddlers can be fun, chaotic (in a good way) and sociable, but they’re never relaxing. Be prepared for the worst and you might just have a good time.

A pram with a cloth covering a sleeping baby is parked next to a restaurant table with a glass of red wine on it
Eating out with a baby or toddler is usually easier if you can park the pushchair right up against the table.

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.