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Tips for Dining with Toddlers

Bringing a young child to a restaurant can be tough, but with planning and flexibility, it can be a positive experience.

A few months ago, my extended family shared a meal at a local Italian restaurant. Before our appetizers had arrived, my then 2-year-old son had spilled a drink, played 12 games of “guess which hand the sugar packet’s in,” dropped two spoons, and climbed out of his chair three times. As we were leaving, I overheard a couple say, “He’s adorable, but I’m glad we’re past that stage.” As anyone with a 1- or 2-year-old knows, taking a toddler to a restaurant can be tough. It requires patience, planning and usually a glass of pinot.

When you take a toddler out to eat, you’re basically including a guest who finds it difficult to sit still, is prone to tantrums and may not like trying new foods. Still, experts say dining out can be a great way to encourage flexibility and, let’s face it, we can’t stay shut in our homes for the first four years of their lives, right?!? If you’re ready to brave the restaurant scene with your toddler, try these tips.

Choose the Right Restaurant

You don’t have to limit yourself to fast food, but do pick a place that’s family friendly. If you go to a restaurant that’s too fancy, you’re just setting your child up to fail. You’ll feel embarrassed and angry if your kid is disruptive, when really it’s not his fault. So look for restaurants with a children’s menu and high chairs – and maybe most importantly — where they’re used to a little (or a lot of) noise.

Never Take a Tired Toddler Out

Talk about a recipe for disaster! When you make your reservation, plan around your child’s regular sleep schedule. If she typically naps at 1 p.m., an early dinner is a much better idea than lunch at noon, for example.

Bring Supplies

Finger puppets, sheer scarves for peekaboo, and sorting toys that fit on a high-chair tray are all great for keeping little kids occupied. As for electronic devices like your smartphone, experts say they’re not fans of using electronic distractions. If your child is busy watching a screen, he might be missing out on the experience of interacting with people, which is part of what dining out is about.

Pick Your Plate ASAP

If you want time to actually eat your meal before a tantrum sets in, place your order as quickly as possible. You might think it’s helpful to order your kid’s meal first, but that tactic can backfire in the likely scenario that she finishes eating before your food even arrives – and then she’ll need something to occupy her while you eat. A better plan: Order together (don’t be shy about asking the waiter to put a rush on it) and offer your kid some favorite snacks you’ve brought from home, which should keep her satisfied until her meal comes. Another word to the wise: You can usually check a restaurant’s menu online ahead of time, which will save precious minutes at the table.

Respect Other Diners

Even if you’re at an inexpensive family restaurant, other customers have the right to enjoy a meal in relative peace. If your child is getting restless or agitated, cart him out of the restaurant to settle down. If he still becomes loud and rowdy at the table, apologize to nearby folks as you walk out (you’ll be surprised how many will give an empathetic “been there” nod). And don’t forget to tip generously if you’ve left a mess behind.

Be Prepared To Leave

Even the most well-planned meal can turn into a complete dining disaster when an unpredictable toddler is involved. If things get really ugly, you may have only one choice: Take your food to go, put your child to sleep in his crib, and then enjoy your meal at home – preferably by candlelight.

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