Oh, the drama around dining out with young children! Should you, shouldn’t you? Do people who are out without children have a right to a child-free space? What do you do if your child, you know, acts like a child? Are you allowed to bring a child somewhere that doesn’t pass out crayons? So many “problems.” Yes, I said “problems,” because they’re not really. My five-year-old daughter has been dining out with her dad and me since she was six weeks old, and we’ve only ever had to leave a restaurant once. Dining out with young children is a matter of knowing and respecting your child, being prepared, being respectful of other diners, and being flexible. Here are my favorite tips for dining out with a toddler.
1. Know your child. What does this even mean because of course you know them? You live with them, right? In a nutshell, it means: take an honest and objective look at your child’s personality and patterns.
- Can your toddler handle going out to eat? No, seriously. Think about it and be honest with yourself.
- Are they able to sit still(ish) for a meal, whether a short one at a quick service restaurant, or a longer one at a fancier restaurant?
- Does your toddler have an appropriate grasp on the idea of “inside voice” for your dinner venue? (McDonald’s is more forgiving than Applebee’s is more forgiving than Maggiano’s is more forgiving than a five-star restaurant.)
- Can your child eat without making a ginormous mess? If you’re still in the flinging-food-on-the-floor phase, or the little one is still working on food-in-the-mouth vs. food-on-the-face, it may be best to wait, or at least to go to somewhere very casual.
2. Respect your child.
- Know your child’s limits and work with them.
- If your toddler can’t handle waiting 30-40 minutes for a Chicago deep dish pizza to cook and still be well-behaved while everyone is eating, then order in or pick a faster pizza place.
- Does your toddler get tuckered out after a long day in preschool or day care? Try going out on the weekends when they’re less likely to have a meltdown.
- Do loud noises or crowded spaces overwhelm your child? Take that into consideration when making plans.
- Is your child able and willing to eat off the menu? Bringing your own food can be a violation of health codes. It’s also kind of rude.
- Look over the menu ahead of time and look for dishes that may be similar to a favorite and comforting food (think swapping macaroni and cheese for pasta alfredo).
- If there isn’t a children’s menu, you may want to call the restaurant to ensure that they’re child-friendly. That’s not say your child has to eat off the kid’s menu, but the lack of one may be a subtle hint that the restaurant isn’t the best place to bring your toddler.
- Many restaurants will be willing to work with you. For example, if they have pasta dishes on the menu, they may be happy to bring a plain buttered noodle dish out for your toddler.
- One of my family’s favorite tricks is to tie new food to favorite movies. Encouraging our daughter to try Chinese food (like Mulan might eat) or Cajun cuisine (like Princess Tiana cooked) or French food (like Princess Belle or Cinderella might eat) has been fun using this little tip.
- My husband and I have always preferred that our daughter’s meal is served at the same time ours is; otherwise we’d spend our meal time entertaining her instead of eating. We have asked, though, that her side dish be served at the same time as our salads. It means we all get to eat together and she’s not kept waiting and hungry.
4. Be prepared
- I always carry a water bottle for my daughter, so we’re not dependent on a server paying attention to empty cups at toddler speed.
- Bring something to color with and paper. I like to bring small colored pencils (Crayola makes small crayon-sized ones and triangle-shaped ones for little hands—the triangles are my favorites—which are great for traveling and much sturdier than crayons.) We cut white paper in half, hole-punched it, and placed it in a half-size binder, inserting a plastic pocket to hold the pencils and some stickers. (This is also awesome for airplanes and car travel.)
- Bring a favorite small toy.
- Have a “surprise” toy—something your child rarely gets to play with—that can serve as a distraction. Break it out if things start heading downhill.
- I personally don’t like electronics as a distraction tool for meals. Generally speaking, if your toddler is unable to wait for a meal and sit through it without that level of entertainment, they’re not ready for the type of dining you’re attempting. That being said, I’m not your kid’s parent. If you use electronics, for the love of all that is holy, bring headphones.
- Sadly, not all restaurants have changing tables in the bathrooms. Bring disposable changing pads that you can use on the floor in the bathroom. Do NOT change your toddler’s diaper in the dining room. (Feel free to complain to management about the changing table thing, though.)
5. Respect others.
- All that stuff about knowing and respecting your toddler’s limits goes a long way to respecting the people around you.
- Be prepared to clean up any messes your child makes and to leave a very generous tip for whoever is cleaning up what you can’t.
- If you want to practice eating out somewhere nicer or special, consider going earlier in the evening when they’re less busy and when folks who are eating out without children are less likely to be present.
- If your toddler starts to get fidgety or loud, take them out to the waiting area or outside to get their wiggles out or calm down. And yes, this might involve interrupting your own meal; that’s the price we pay as we teach our children to be polite members of society. Remember that “loud” doesn’t have to mean shrieking obnoxiously at the top of their lungs. They could simply be being a toddler; that doesn’t mean they’re not being disruptive, though, or that a chance to get some wiggles out isn’t a good idea. (This is where the “be flexible” part comes in.)
- Think back to things that would have made for a less-than-pleasant experience before you had kids—or things that could put a damper on an adults-only night out at this stage in your life—and have strategies in place for dealing with those things if your toddler starts doing them. Everything from busting out that special toy to boxing your meals and leaving (and here’s another place where “being flexible” is important).
And one last tip: Start going out early and do it often. The more opportunities you have to acclimate your child to dining out (proper behavior, using good manners, etc.), the better their behavior will be and the easier it will be to dine out. Yes, even with your toddler.