Eating out at restaurants with your toddler can feel so overwhelming sometimes that often parents arrive at the conclusion that it’s not even worth it.
You may have memories of dining out with your parents when you were younger and being reminded to use your manners. And it worked, most of the time. But those memories are probably from when you were 5 or 6 years old or even older.
DO NOT assume that you have prepared your young child for a restaurant experience by talking to them about how to behave in a restaurant. This might work with a 5-8 year old but when entering an establishment with a 2-4 year old you need to understand that they do not yet have the self-regulation skills to control themselves. So, skip the prep talk about restaurant etiquette and prepare yourself by following the tips below…
10 tips for eating at a restaurant with a toddler
- Timing is everything. But, you already know this. The earlier the better. Stay within your child’s schedule.
- Pick child friendly spots. Not only do you want a place that caters to children and families, but also, you want to go to a restaurant where other diners expect “kid energy” so you don’t feel anxious or worse, mortified, if/when it doesn’t go well.
- Cut the waiting game down. Review the menu before going so you can order right away and avoid spending extra time waiting.
- Come prepared. Bring a water paint book (like Melissa and Doug’s On The Go Water Wow), a small interactive book (such as a lift the flap book like Dear Zoo), and/or 4-5 magnetic blocks (like Tegu). Remember, containers count as play items for toddlers so package what you bring in a fun little drawstring bag or colorful little box. Also important: Less is more. You don’t want lots of anything. Don’t bring things that easily roll off the table. Do not show them what you are bringing in advance. It is best if the items are new and haven’t been seen before. Save them for at least midway through the meal or when the novelty of being in a restaurant is wearing off and they are showing signs of restlessness.
- Opt for the booster seat or the high chair. Yes, we want our children to feel independent and like big kids. But how can they feel like a big kid with their chin resting on the table? Also, it’s loud and stimulating in a restaurant so young children and toddlers will be more prone to jumping up and running around. A highchair or booster seat will help ground them, make them feel safe and secure, and will keep them in their spot. It will help to establish that in restaurants the expectation is that they stay in their seat.
- Bring their own cup or water bottle. Even in child friendly restaurants where they thoughtfully bring a plastic cup with a lid and straw, those cups are too big for toddler hands, and the straw is often too high. You’ll still need to help them and will likely still end up with a spill. They know how to use their own cup, so remove the barriers and work with what they know.
- Keep it short and sweet. Don’t stay too long. Watch your child for cues that they’ve had enough.
- Ask the server to bring your child’s food out as soon as it's ready. Then, save the little toys and items from home to keep your child entertained while you are eating and finishing your meal.
- Practice at home. If your child eats every night clipped onto a counter before you and your partner eat, then you should take the time to practice before heading out to a restaurant. Have them sit at the dining table for 45 minutes with you and your partner at 6pm to eat dinner together. Consider it a test run and see how it goes. While you might feel that this version of eating out won’t work as well due to the fact that it's not as fun or as novel as a restaurant, at least you’ll have a sense of what you might be up against…in a public setting.
- Know your child and know when to say they just aren’t ready for this. Just because some folks are able to take their children to restaurants and enjoy themselves, it doesn’t mean your child is ready too. Consider your individual child. You know what is best for them and what they can handle.
Bringing your toddler to a restaurant can be difficult, but practice and preparation can really make a difference. If you take the time to get ready at home, you can start with quick meals and see what works and what doesn’t. In the end, your child will continue to grow older and get more used to spending time out with your family. You just need to go at their pace. Cheers - You got this!