So, you’re thinking of dining out with your toddler. You brave parent, you! Bringing your toddler to a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. But it can be done. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of a successful dining experience.
1. Choose the restaurant wisely
Sure, you and your spouse may have fond memories of three-course meals at your favorite French bistro, but this is no time to get nostalgic. If you want to have any hope of enjoying a meal en famille you’re going to have to choose something more kid-friendly. Find out whether or not the place has a kids menu. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to order from it, it’s just an indicator that the place at least has some notion that kids might sometimes eat there. (To find out whether or not they have one, just go to their website. Most restaurants list their menus online.) Another good indicator of whether you’ve got a chance of surviving a meal somewhere is to look it up on Yelp (or a similar website) and see if it’s listed as “kid-friendly.” You can also look at pictures posted by other customers to get a sense of what the place looks like and whether or not you think it’s worth trying. Also, check to see if they have highchairs. If they’ve got them, they’re probably used to serving kids who need them.
2. Pack a variety of activities
Ah, for the days of pre-dinner conversation! Sorry, but the time between when you sit down and when your food arrives will make or break the rest of your dining experience. Your child is used to having his food appear immediately after he sits down at the table. At a restaurant, though, there could easily be half an hour between getting seated and getting your food. So you’ve got to be prepared. Bring a variety of things that your child likes to do, and can easily play with while seated at the table. Stickers, crayons, little cars to drive on the table, dolls or action figures, post-its to stick on things, etc. (I’d recommend not offering a video or game on your phone unless you absolutely have to. Part of going out to eat together is practicing good table manners and social etiquette. I know your child is only a toddler but, if at all possible, it’s important to include him as part of the family. You wouldn’t want your spouse, or older child, glued to their phone during dinner. So try not to get your toddler in the habit either.)
3. Don’t pull out all your activities right away
See how long you can go without having to bring out something you brought. If you’re reading this, your toddler probably hasn’t spent too much time in restaurants before. So there’s actually a lot on the table he might find interesting. Don’t offer him things that might break or are dangerous (obviously), but do let him take a look at the menu, take the sugar packets out of the little container and put them back in, crumple up some napkins, etc. If the restaurant provides crayons, great! Let him play with those for a while too. That way, once you bring out the things from home, you’re that much closer to the arrival of the food.
4. Try not to offer snacks before the food arrives
It’s tempting, I know, to keep your little one calm and quiet by handing him a few snacks. The problem is that, while it may keep things under control while you’re waiting for the food to come, he’s not going to be hungry when it finally does. Then you and your spouse will be left scarfing down your food as fast as you can while your kid throws tomato sauce at the elderly couple at table 24. That doesn’t sound like a pleasant dining experience for anyone (especially not the people at table 24). If your kid really won’t sit at the table while you’re waiting for the food, take turns walking around the restaurant with him. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than a total meltdown before dinner.
5. Order foods you know your kid will like
The idea here is for all of you to enjoy a family meal together. The best way to make this happen is for your child to spend at least some of his time focused on the food. Sure, you may wish your kid would try beet salad (or whatever) but, if he never has before, this is not a good time to order it for him. Pick something he’s had before and liked. (I recognize that, with toddlers, that doesn’t mean he’s going to like it now. But it’s your best shot.) Another option is to just make him a meal out of your, and your spouse’s, food. Toddlers love eating things off their parents’ plates. So, if you’re at a place that offers large portions, just ask for an extra plate and pass your toddler things from yours. The idea is to keep him interested in eating for as long as possible. That way you can eat too!
6. Ask for the check right when your food arrives
You may want to sit and chat with your spouse a little longer, but your toddler is a ticking time bomb. If everyone is done eating, that’s your cue to call it a night. It’s a good idea to ask for the check (and pay it) while your toddler is still happily chowing down. You want to get while the getting’s good. No, you don’t want another drink, no you don’t want dessert, you’re done. Baby steps.
7. Apologize profusely but try not to worry too much about the mess
Your toddler is going to make a mess in the restaurant. Even if everything went more smoothly than you could possibly have imagined, your toddler is, well, a toddler. So he’s messy. There will be food on the floor, on the chair, all over the table. There will be pieces of torn up napkin strewn about, and sugar packets artfully arranged all over the table and chairs. It will look like your table was the epicenter of some sort of explosion. Clean up the best you can, but (and I’m sorry if there are any restaurant servers reading this) leave it for the waitstaff to clean up. It’s part of their job. But do apologize, thank them effusively for cleaning up your mess, and (if you’re able) give them a bigger tip than you normally would.
It won’t be the kind of experience you remember from before you had kids. Far from it. But there’s a chance it will be enjoyable in its own right. Or maybe not. But it’s worth a shot, right? Bon appetit!