Eating on the go with infants and toddlers

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’ve decided to dedicate each day this week to offering tips, inspiration, and stories to all the traveling moms out there, especially those who might be questioning how, where, or why they can bring their children out into the world. And I won’t be doing it alone. Each day other fabulous traveling mothers will offer their own words of wisdom. I’m so excited to bring you the collective experience of this truly amazing group of family travelers who have been round the world and back with their little ones.

Dining out with a toddler can be fun; I promise.

Next to airline travel with babies and toddlers, dining out may be one of the more fraught topics of conversation for new parents. And I’m not going to sugarcoat it – I love to eat out, but during the toddler years, it’s really tough to do so. Mobile children don’t necessarily want to sit still to eat and their concept of an “inside voice” is limited at best. You may find during this time that the wine you used to sip as a complement to your meal has become more of a tool to loosen the tension in your jaw.

Even nursing infants can be a challenge when it comes to restaurants. We embarked on a 3-week, 4000-mile road trip with Tommy when he was a few months old, assuming that dining out would be no problem as up until that point he would usually happily doze in his car seat carrier while we ate. Of course he chose to make that the moment to start fussing at dinnertime. After a long day of driving, we’d find a place to dine and then one of us would have to walk around with a crying baby while the other one ate. We didn’t have a conversation over dinner for the entire trip.

Eating outside is always a great idea with little kids.

When your child is between the ages of about ten months and two years old, my best tip is to be realistic and patient. Don’t avoid restaurants altogether (I believe that children only learn how to dine out by actually doing so) but try to be sensible in your choices. Eating outside is almost always a great option if a restaurant offers it. Large markets with food stalls and dining areas like Quincy Market in Boston, Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, or the Farmers Market in Los Angeles are also good choices – not only do you have lots of options when it comes to what you’ll eat, but since these spaces tend to be loud and full of movement, your child isn’t going to attract any notice.

And a little bribery can go a long way – when my children were little I wasn’t above pulling a new toy out of my purse that I had purchased just for the occasion or letting them have goldfish crackers for dinner, making up for it with something health later on.

So what do other traveling moms recommend when it comes to eating out with baby?

Corinne McDermott of Have Baby Will Travel says that traveling and dining out with baby can be a snap with a little preparation:

Traveling with a breastfeeding baby may be the easiest time for parents. Of couse, it’s easy for me to say that with hindsight – as a first-time mom I would never have thought so. But the fact remains, that if your baby is exclusively breastfed, all she needs is you. As your child gets a little older though you might find that feeding baby while traveling, while still not too complicated, gets messy! Be sure to pack a wipeable bib, infant cereal you mix with water (it’s easy to travel with and nutritionally complete), and the new foil packets of baby purees that are so much easier to pack than jars. And if you’re still introducing new foods, hold off until you’re home – it’s easier to cope with possible reactions when you’re in a familiar environment.

Not finding anything appropriate on the menu for your child? Rebecca Darling of R We There Yet Mom? says don’t suffer in silence.

Ask! You would be surprised at how accommodating restaurants want to be. When my son was just starting to eat solid food, we ask at a Chinese food restaurant, if they wouldn’t mind making us some soft, broiled chicken and brown rice.  It came out cut up into tiny pieces, perfect for him to eat.

Traci Suppa  of Go Big or Go Home suggests finding alternatives to traditional restaurants:

As an alternative, consider picking up hot meals to go from supermarkets. You benefit by 1) not having to worry about your child’s behavior and 2) being able to purchase only the amount of food your child will realistically eat. Some chains, such as Wegmans, have hot and cold food bars where you pay by the pound. When we last visited Wegmans, we found that they even have a dedicated, family-friendly seating area and show movies in the evenings.

As with many things having to do with small children, being prepared is a key part of success when it comes to dining out with babies. Colleen Lanin of Travel Mamas suggests stocking your bag:

Pack plenty of healthy travel snacks to keep children happy on the go. Also pack a few “forbidden” snacks for older babies and toddlers. Dole out colorful sugar cereals or small candies (I like mini M&Ms) one at a time to preserve sanity as you near the end of your journey.

Nicole Wiltrout of Arrows Sent Forth uses a similar approach:

Like most moms, I always keep a few treats in my purse or diaper bag. A light snack can help immensely during the wait for food to arrive. Crayons and a small notebook have saved the day for us many times. If there’s no children’s menu, look at the side dish options. You’ll probably find one of your kid’s favorites there and the portion will probably be perfect. And go early and avoid the wait for a table.

And finally, Keryn Means of Walkingon Travels says to be bold when it comes to feeding your child (and yourself) on the road

Don’t underestimate what your child is willing to eat while on the road. Chances are if it’s on mom and dad’s plate then she or he will want to give it a go.

I have to agree with Keryn – food is such a great way to experience and expose yourself and your family to different cultures. And starting at a young age means your child may be more open to trying different foods in the future.

For more tips about dining on the road with children see my suggestions in Road trip tip: Eating on the road. I share this post also as part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust and Lipstick – if you’re feeling hungry for some great food writing and photographs be sure to check it out.

And feel free also to share your own tips for eating on the go with babies and toddlers in the comments below.

Reader Responses

2 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Great tried and tested tips! Bringing a few snacks to tide our son over until the food comes is helpful. I always bring a ziploc bag full of coloring pages, crayons, stickers and pipe cleaners to keep our son busy. Individual peel-off stickers work better than those on pages (if your little ones fingers can manage them), because all the time spent peeling extends the activity. And as Colleen mentioned, small little special finger snacks come in handy too in a pinch – things he doesn’t get to eat very often like goldfish crackers, fruit loops or mini packs of smarties.

    I find there is almost always something for him to eat regardless of what country we are in – almost any menu will have rice, pasta or noodles – and most restaurants are happy to provide a smaller (and less spicy) portion.

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