How to Get Your Toddler to Behave in a Restaurant

Get your toddler to behave in a restaurant.
Images by Tang Ming Tung / Moment / Getty Images

Enjoying a dinner out can feel like a treat – until you have a toddler. Dining out with a 2-year-old can feel more like a punishment. Rather than swearing off restaurants until your children head to high school, set appropriate expectations for your little ones and correct or head off bad behavior before it begins so the whole family can savor a meal out of the home.

Find Family-Friendly Establishments

While it’s not a good idea to take children to high-end, white-tablecloth restaurants, sometimes it’s hard to tell if a restaurant is going to be kid-friendly.

Look for indicators on the menu—do they tout a children’s menu? Is it casual food such as burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches?

That’s probably more kid-friendly than steaks and seafood (unless it’s a beachfront crab shack!) When all else fails, give the restaurant a call; a well-informed hostess can help you make the decision.

Choose the Right Time and Day

Six p.m., Saturday night. The restaurant is busy, the servers are overwhelmed and you might have to wait for a table. This is prime time for dining, but it’s not an ideal time to take your toddlers out to eat.

Instead, go earlier in the day or on a non-peak night, such as a Monday. The kitchen will be able to prepare your food faster and wait staff will be more attentive to you. The restaurant will also be emptier, meaning there will be fewer patrons to annoy if your child acts out.

Practice at Home

Be honest: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could teach your child to behave at the dinner table at a restaurant and at home?

Start practicing a “restaurant night” at your own dinner table. Role play how to order food, how to wait to be served, and how to stay seated during the meal. You’re your child a preview of what you expect from him when you’re out and, perhaps, can help him display better manners every day, too.

Don’t Allow for Special Exceptions

As an adult, you wouldn’t run screaming around the restaurant, drop food on the floor or bang on the table.

Don’t use the excuse, “They’re just children” if you expect your child to display good behavior. As a general rule, if behavior isn’t appropriate for you, as an adult, to display in public, it’s not appropriate for your child, either. Of course, using crayons and coloring paper for a little distraction is an exception to the rule!

Offer Distractions

Waiting is not easy for children. The 20 to 30 minutes between ordering food and having it arrive is prime time for a hungry, bored child to get into trouble. For little ones, bring an arsenal of non-filling snacks, such as Cheerios, that you can dole out a little bit at a time. Bring a bag of small, quiet toys, such as extra crayons and a coloring book or a board book (try a bath book, so you don’t worry about spilling on it) and give them to your child one at a time.

Go Outside and Take a Break

Even the most patient children get restless. Switch off taking your little one outside for a walk or brief playtime both before and after the meal. This allows your child to see new things, stretch and burn off a little energy.

When your child behaves well at a restaurant, don’t forget to praise her. Give her a sticker for good behavior at the restaurant too. Happy children and happy parents means an enjoyable dinner out for all.

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