Do you like to eat out but worry your toddler’s unpredictable behavior will ruin the experience? With a toddler, there is no guarantee that meltdowns won’t ever happen but a little preparation can go a long way in reducing the risk. Don’t fret if you are short on babysitters; venture out and show your little one that eating out can be fun. Here are some suggestions from my experience with my now 4 year old. He has grown to love it so much that he gets excited by the mere mention of going out to eat. He likes to rattle off all the names of the restaurants he sees as we drive down the highway. Sometimes I have to convince him to eat at home. Shazbat. Perhaps my plan worked a little bit too well! Good thing my budget won’t allow us to overindulge. Anyway, here’s what I learned.
First, time it right. Make sure your child is well rested if at all possible. A tired kid will try your patience anywhere, but especially in a restaurant. If the restaurant of choice is popular, try to go early to avoid crowds.
Second, look for family-friendly restaurants that offer kid menus. Diners of these restaurants expect to find kids there and the atmosphere is usually more appealing to children. A few we have patronized are Red Robin, Outback, El Torito, Denny’s and diners. We occasionally visit a theme restaurant like the Rain Forest Café but expect to pay more at these places. Sometimes the noise and chaos at such venues can be a bit scary for the younger set. If you have a sensitive child, you may want to hold off on these until he/she is older. Check menus on the internet before you go or call ahead if you are not sure what’s available at the place you prefer. Even some of the fancier establishments will make adjustments for children upon request. Oh and don’t forget to scope out the internet and newspapers for coupons, if applicable.
Third, do not count on restaurants to have the little things that make a meal more enjoyable to a toddler. Bendy straws, for example, will make it much easier for your child to drink from the cups they usually serve. Most places have only the long straight kind which makes it really hard for a little one to maneuver the cup and increases the chance of a terrible spill and/or a nice big poke in the face. Definitely a mood spoiler, so I always put a bag of bendies in my purse and cut them to different lengths so I’ll have the perfect size for whatever cup they give my son. Putting the drink in an empty sippy cup is another solution to prevent liquids from falling all over the table (and your child) if your kid is willing to use it. Or bring your own drink. Kid-sized forks and spoons also come in very handy as most restaurants do not provide these and they make eating so much less stressful for a kid. Disposable placemats that stick to the table are useful as well. And, of course, extra wipes. If your child still uses a high chair, try to dress him/her in clothes that will not slide on wooden high chairs or bring something they can sit on that will not slide. We have spent many a meal propping my son up repeatedly on those chairs.
Fourth and perhaps most important, anticipate boredom. Pack a small bag of surprises to keep your little one engaged. Crayons and notebook/coloring book should be standard. Other ideas: sticker books, small cans of play-doh, books, cheerios and string to put them on, small cars or characters for play acting, mad libs, pictures. Older kids will like activity books with mazes, dot to dot, etc. I like to collect little games and toys we get from parties and use them for this treat bag. You can also stock up at any dollar or craft store.
Finally, have a plan in case the food takes too long or your picky eater simply doesn’t like his/her choices. Many times the waiters are happy to bring out your child’s meal early if you ask. She/he can eat dessert when your meal comes. This really works with my child because he is always happy when eating dessert. Carry a bag of snacks and/or a food your child likes in case you can’t get the meal early or if you don’t wish to order from the menu. The right snacks can work wonders.
Don’t forget to include your child in the conversation whenever possible. If this is the first time you’ve eaten out together, talk to him/her about how to behave in a restaurant and what to expect. This will help him/her be more at ease in this setting. If your kid happens to be one of the messy ones, make up for it with a big tip. You’ll want to leave a good impression on the wait staff in case you want to come back!