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.

Essential kit, part 3: pop-up tent travel cot

I’m not looking forward to the day the baby girl outgrows her pop-up tent travel cot. We bought it for a trip to Goa when she was four-months-old, and have used it every time we’ve gone away since then, at hotels, B&Bs, in our campervan, when staying with friends and relatives, and for nearly a month over the summer when we were working in Edinburgh.

It’s handy for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it functions almost like a separate space within the room because it’s entirely enclosed once it’s zipped up. It’s not soundproof, and it doesn’t entirely block out the light, but it’s better than an open cot in both respects (if it’s not dark enough in the room we’re trying to get the baby girl to sleep in, we usually drape a breathable blanket over the top of the tent). The zip itself is important too: zipping the tent closed works as a sleep cue – for our baby at least (except when it doesn’t, of course). And once it’s closed, it’s a barrier to mosquitos and other insects.

Given how different sleeping in the tent is from sleeping in a cot, you’ll want to do a few practice runs before you go away. It took the baby girl two naps in the tent in our living room at home to get used to it, as I recall.

Depending on your destination and type of trip, you might find the tent useful in the daytime too; and for more than just napping. We put the baby girl in it all the time in Goa so she could roll around with her teething rings and toys in a relatively clean environment. We must have looked ridiculous carting it to and from our room all day, but the staff took it in their stride. We thought we’d use the tent on the beach a lot, but ultimately it was too hot to do that, so we stayed in the beachside restaurant most of the time and took turns going for dips in the sea. We’ve used it camping too, as a way of safely stowing away the baby girl for the moments when two sets of hands are required to set up or strike camp.

Further perks are that it packs down very small and is very light. It’s so small and so light in fact that you can take the tent as carry-on on a plane, or pack it into your luggage. Your actual cot cunningly concealed, you can then pass off another small bag as a travel cot, thereby making the most of your infant baggage allowance of (usually) travel cot, pushchair and car seat. I’ll be covering infant baggage allowance separately in a future post, so sign up to the mailing list if you want to read more (there’s a link on the sidebar on the right).

A major downside of the tent is that it doesn’t provide complete shade, so you can’t rely on it in sunny places – your baby will still need sun cream, a hat, etc. It gets pretty warm in there too – in Goa we used a little battery-operated fan and covered the baby girl with damp muslin squares to keep her cool.

The tent is very easy to pop up and pack away, but the fact that you have to be either on the floor or in a very deep bend to get your child into and out of it means that it won’t be ideal for all parents/carers. We use a conventional travel cot when we take the baby girl to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Baby on holiday in a pop-up tent travel cot on a beach in Goa, with the sun setting over the sea. A mini fan is keeping the baby cool. There are sun loungers on the beach.
The baby girl in her pop-up tent travel cot on the beach in Goa, her miniature fan keeping her cool.