Let’s get real. Eating in a restaurant with a toddler can be a harrowing experience. But it doesn’t have to be! I’m not going to lie – it hasn’t always been a completely smooth experience for us. And I’ve heard stories that may sound familiar.
- Several years ago, my husband and I were visiting his sister (let’s call her Lisa) and her family. Lisa had a toddler at the time who refused to sit at the table while we were having lunch at a casual restaurant. He threw a loud tantrum and she and her husband needed to take him outside. Several times. He never did return to the restaurant to eat and Lisa’s husband didn’t either. After the meal when we went outside, his Dad was playing with him in the parking lot.
- Then there’s the story from a friend of mine (I’ll call her Emily) who was out to lunch with her two kids and a friend (I’ll call Anna) and her two kids. Anna’s kids started acting out at the restaurant. They refused to sit calmly at the table, spoke very loudly and one even threw a tantrum. Emily recalled her kids looking very confused at what was going on, as they sat there amusing themselves waiting for their food.
So how can you help ensure you have a good experience when dining out with your toddler? Read on for some tips.
So there’s more to the story above with my friend Emily. I asked her what her secret was. How was it that her kids were so well behaved in the restaurant when Anna’s kids weren’t. She had to think for a minute and finally said, “I think it’s because we’ve taken the kids out to eat since they were infants. We expect them to behave well and they don’t know any different.”
I took this advice to heart.
- My older son went to his first restaurant when he was 4 months old. It was just to a local tavern for a quick lunch and he stayed in the infant carrier for most of the meal, but it gave him some exposure to the experience.
- His next time dining out with us was lunch at TGI Fridays at 6 months old. We had a little snafu – I forgot the diaper bag. Within minutes of me telling my husband we were ‘flying without a net’, our son had a poop blowout. Thankfully we were close enough to the house that my husband could drive back for the diaper bag while we stayed at the restaurant. We cleaned him up and he was a happy camper. Live and learn.
- Once he was comfortable eating solids, he enjoyed eating with us. Just before his first birthday, we had dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for Easter and our waiter complimented us on his behavior!
- My son and I flew cross-country to California for a family wedding. Since we were in a hotel, we ate many of our meals out. In spite of being severely jet-lagged, he handled it like a trooper.
I’m not suggesting that you need to eat out with you kids constantly, or that you need to go to expensive restaurants. Going out once every few weeks will help your kids get used to dining out. It will also help you be more comfortable dining out with your kids and learn what works for your family. We make it a point to go to breakfast at our favorite diner every few weeks – and usually follow it with a nice walk or trip to the playground as a reward for good behavior.
Be Smart When Choosing a Restaurant
This may sound obvious, but not all restaurants are ‘kid-friendly’. Generally speaking, restaurants with high chairs and kids menus may be more tolerant if your toddler exhibits ‘boisterous’ behavior. If you haven’t already been to the restaurant, check out the menu and reviews online to see if it looks appropriate for kids.
Chain restaurants are usually a safe bet. They attract a louder crowd that includes families who have probably been in your situation. They’ll likely be more sympathetic if your child acts out. These restaurants also usually have a wide selection of options on the kids’ menu to choose from.
Pack a ‘Bag of Tricks’
You can only play ‘hide the sugar packet’ or build a tower out of the jelly boxes so many times before your kids get bored. Some kid-friendly restaurants will print kid menus on paper and provide crayons, which helps. But I strongly suggest keeping some small toys in your diaper bag specifically for this purpose. Since we only dine out once every few weeks, I can reuse most of the same toys because my boys don’t see them all the time.
- I have a few of these funky emergency vehicles that roll
- and a couple of the mini-books from this box
- Then I usually grab a few matchbox cars that my older son can play a guessing game with. Don’t show your child the cars right away but give clues and let your child guess after each clue. The idea here is to stretch the game out a bit before he actually gets to play with the toy. For example, for an ambulance I might say something like, “This vehicle is white…” then “It has lights on top…” Make it easy for your child after the 3rd or 4th clue otherwise they’ll get bored.
- I recently picked up these great Brain Quest decks which my kids love too. We use them with my younger son who is learning to talk by asking him to point out items on the cards, say words, choose colors, etc.
We avoid using electronics in restaurants as much as possible (don’t hate – it’s a peeve of mine). Dining out is family time which means we’re not checking emails or texts on our phones. Similarly, we don’t rely on our cell phones or tablets to amuse our kids at restaurants. We feel it prevents our kids from engaging in the experience and interacting with everyone at the table. With my bag of tricks, we’re usually pretending right along with them or engaging in play while waiting for our meal. Once the food arrives, we can easily transition to a conversation about what we’re eating and our plans for the rest of the day instead of trying to pry cell phones out of our kids’ hands.
Tips for Newbs
For your first foray eating in a restaurant with a toddler, keep it simple:
- A quick breakfast or early lunch at a place where you walk up and order yourself is a good test. A good chain example with healthy options is Panera.
- If possible, order your food ‘to go’ and then sit at a table to eat. If your toddler starts acting up to the point of no return, it’s much easier to wrap everything back up and leave instead of having to wait for carry-out bags while your toddler melts down.
- Timing is key. Eating in a restaurant with a toddler can be a nightmare if your child is tired. Trying to eat out too close to your child’s naptime or bedtime is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
- Be sure to pack your ‘bag of tricks’ – see above.
- Kids love one-on-one attention. Consider making a special ‘date’ with your toddler where it’s just the two of you. My sons love the idea of a ‘date’ with Mommy and always seems to behave a little bit better when it’s just the two of us.
- Be realistic in terms of timing – your child will likely be willing to sit for no more than 20 minutes initially. Once they get used to dining out, they’ll be able to go longer. Be sensitive to their need to move and don’t expect for them to sit quietly for an extremely long period of time.
With a little bit of help and some practice, your toddler can become a wonderful dining companion. Do you have any tried and true tips for a successful dining out experience with your toddler? Add a comment below!