Introducing your young diner to eating out in cafés and restaurants at an early age is a great way to get them interested in food, while at the same time awakening their senses to the sights and sounds of the outside world.
If the idea of taking your toddler out for lunch feels a bit daunting, don’t worry. Here are a few simple tips to make sure that everything runs smoothly (and that you actually get to enjoy your own lunch).
choose a child-friendly restaurant
When it comes to dining out with young children, it really is all about location, location, location. Ask friends for local recommendations or check out reviews on TripAdvisor written by other families. If you’re away and searching on the spot for a place to eat, look out for clues: are there other families eating there? Do they look happy? Is there a children’s menu outside? Are there any signs that the restaurant wants to attract young customers, like jars of crayons? If you’re after a pub lunch, is there an outdoor play area? An enclosed garden can make for a perfect afternoon... British weather permitting, of course.
keep them entertained
The key to relaxing and managing more than a few mouthfuls yourself is entertainment. There are few small children who will happily sit over a meal as long as the grown-ups will, so you’ll need to fill in the time. Pack a bag of tricks to take with you. Colouring books or sticker books are great options, and older toddlers may happily immerse themselves in a children’s magazine picked up en route. But be realistic – a two-year-old won’t sit through a tasting menu, so if you want a gourmet meal or a lingering candlelit dinner, book a babysitter.
find the right foods
A restaurant with a good children’s menu or one that makes it clear it'll serve child-size portions is a fabulous find. But if this doesn’t suit your little one, don’t be afraid to mix and match the menu. A couple of sides such as sweet potato chips and garlic bread may suit your young diner better than a full meal. Ordering off-menu can also be worth a try if your toddler is going through a fussy phase: most eateries can whip up some toast as long they’re not too busy! You can always share food with your child, which is a fun way of encouraging them to try new flavours. You’ll be safer serving drinks in their usual sippy cup, unless your sophisticated little diner is already au fait with glasses and straws.
if things kick off...
Let’s be honest, we’re talking toddlers here – their moods aren’t always predictable. If your young dining companion decides they’ve had enough, and offers of favourite foods and colouring book distraction aren’t working, it’s time for a change of scenery. Often, a five-minute walk outside or a trip to explore the loos can make all the difference. If you’re the only adult there, ask a member of staff to keep an eye on your things and explain you’ll be back soon – they’ll appreciate that you’re dealing with your shouty little one. If it starts to feel like a full-on tantrum, unfortunately, it’s time for the bill and a takeaway box. Full marks for trying – give it a go again another time.