9 Tips for Taking Your Toddler to a Restaurant

Bringing a toddler to restaurants tends to be an activity fraught with uncertainty, fear and stress, not to mention, a point of contention between parents and child-free adults. But a meal out doesn’t have to be an ordeal if you plan in advance. Avoid potential pitfalls and dine out with your toddler and your sanity using these tips. 

Know Thy Toddler.

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Be realistic about your toddler’s ability to handle a meal in a restaurant. Can she sit while you wait to be served, or is the play space at a fast food joint more her speed? Be honest about your toddler’s limits because a mealtime meltdown outside your home is going to be just as stressful for you as it is for your toddler.

Choose a Family-friendly Restaurant and a Family-friendly Time.

Many a social media argument has begun over the myth that parents are intent on bringing their young children to Michelin-starred restaurants. While this is hardly typical, choosing a restaurant that caters to families does cut down on the possibility you will be on the receiving end of death stares and eye rolls if your toddler happens to act like, you know, a toddler.  

But you don’t have to shy away from more upscale options if you choose an appropriate time of day. Want to try the newest sushi spot or French bistro? While it might not be as family friendly as the chain at the mall, if you plan for an early lunch or dinner when the restaurant isn't busy, it’s unlikely your child will bother other patrons. 

Make Sure Your Toddler is Rested.

Taking a cranky kid who skipped a nap or didn’t sleep well the night before out for a meal is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be afraid to bail if your toddler’s mood isn’t up for the restaurant challenge. 

Set Expectations Before You Hit the Host Stand.

Particularly if you have an older toddler, having a conversation with him about your restaurant outing before you are seated can help you set expectations. Tell your toddler that going out to eat is a special treat, that he will be able to choose his own food off the menu as well as your expectations for behavior and good manners.

When in Doubt, Bribe.

It may not be the best parenting advice for all situations, but toddlers are starting to get the hang of incentives. If a dinner out is particularly special, promising a small reward (like dessert) for good behavior might go a long way toward a peaceful meal. 

BYO Supplies.

Most restaurants easily accommodate toddlers with kid meals, cups with lids, booster chairs, highchairs, and milk and juice. But it pays to think through your child’s needs: Do you need to bring a sippy cup? Can your child eat with adult-sized silverware or should you bring a kid-sized fork and spoon? Does your toddler need a bib? If you toddler tends to throw things on the ground, should you use a disposable placemat instead of breakable plate? Unless you’re familiar with the restaurant, bring your supplies or call ahead if there is something specific you think you’ll need.

Have a Meal Plan.

Even the most laid-back toddlers aren’t going to last in a restaurant for a long, leisurely dinner, so think through your plan to get through your meal at a reasonable pace. How you go about this largely depends on your child. Some families immediately order their children’s food so that the wait time is less for the little ones. Others believe this strategy backfires when the toddler finishes his meal and is not capable of waiting for you to finish yours. 

You could also consider bringing a light snack for your toddler, which will occupy her while you order and wait, but that may mean she no longer wants to eat a full meal. It may take some trial and error, but don’t be afraid to tell your waiter to rush your order if necessary, and don't be afraid to say, "Check please!" if a toddler meltdown ensues. 

Prepare to Entertain.

Bring small, quiet toys to entertain your toddler like her favorite board book, crayons, paper and stickers. You can also focus on restaurant items that are new and won't cause too big of a mess. For example, toddlers might enjoy building small towers with coffee creamers or coloring on a kid's menu. 

Bringing an iPad or electronic device for your toddler tends to be another point of contention with parents and non-parents. You know your child, and if a few apps will mean a peaceful and pleasant meal, just be mindful of those around you. Keep the volume low or bring kiddie headphones, and ignore any disapproving looks -- those are likely the same people who would be upset by a loud or unhappy child at the next table. 

Tip Well.

Some toddlers have no problem dining out, while others aren’t able to sit through a meal at home much less in a restaurant. Be honest about your toddler’s capabilities and tailor your plan to her ability to function in a restaurant. 

Regardless of your experience, if your waiter is patient and unfazed by your little one’s antics, tip a little extra if you can. It will ensure you and your toddler are welcomed back any time.

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