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Dealing With the Challenges of Eating out With Toddlers

Updated on July 13, 2023

The child was banging on the table with a spoon, a smile firmly in place as heads turned in her direction. One parent tried to quiet her noise, which only grew louder. When they took the spoon from her hand, the banging stopped but was replaced by crying, which quickly turned into screams. The parents could feel every eye in the restaurant on them as they tried to calm their upset toddler.

Once they get past the quiet, sleeping baby phase, it can be challenging to go out to eat at a restaurant with toddlers. They jump and play, scream and run around, throw tantrums and generally worry their parents, especially if others are looking on or criticizing them. It's often easier to stay at home until they get past this phase and dining out becomes a thing of the past. It doesn't have to be that way. With a few adjustments and some pre-planning, you can still enjoy the occasional meal out and teach your toddler some table manners, too.

The Right Place and The Right Time for Eating Out with Toddlers

One of the main factors in enjoying a meal out with your toddler is picking the right place and time. I remember when my daughter was still a baby and I decided to go out to eat dinner after picking her up from daycare. My usually happy baby, less than a year old, wouldn't stop crying. It got so bad that I had to leave before the food was served. I learned a valuable lesson that day not to take her out after a long day away from home.
You want to make sure to pick a kid-friendly restaurant, but it doesn't have to be fast food. Children can learn to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere of a sit-down restaurant. You can look up the menus of places online and see if they have kid-friendly items. If they do, you can bet they will be used to dealing with rowdy toddlers and won't frown on parents who bring their children.

If there aren't any kids' menus or the atmosphere is more formal, it doesn't mean they don't allow children, but they may not be as tolerant of the noise and messes. You might want to pass on those places until you have a babysitter and can enjoy an adult-only meal.

The time you choose to eat is essential, too. You would consider your toddler's naptime and when they are in the best mood to sit still. But also consider the timing for the restaurant. You don't want to go during their busiest hours when you'd be standing in line or when service was slow because they were packed. Adults get frustrated during those times, so you can imagine a toddler feeling bored. A late lunch or early dinner after naptime may be the best option or enjoy breakfast out after they have had a good night's sleep.

Tips to Curb Rowdy Toddler Behavior in a Restaurant

1. Seating.

Most restaurants offer a highchair for your little one. If they don't suggest it, don't be afraid to ask. However, another option is to ask if they have a booth available instead and then put the toddler on the inside seat. She likely will prefer this "big girl seating" to being stuck in a highchair. Another benefit is that she is out of the path of waiters and other customers where she could grab at them or throw food on them. And you only have one side of the child to worry about since the wall will prevent them from getting away from you or throwing stuff.

The one thing you do have to be concerned about is that they have better access to what's on the table. Grabbing items won't be a problem if you keep everything on your other side. Also, don't be afraid to ask the waiter to hold off on serving the main course until you're finished with the salad or appetizer to keep down the number of plates or bowls within reach.

2. Prevent boredom.

Ask the waiter for a package of crackers if it will be a while before your food comes out. That way your toddler can be entertained until he can eat. Try to choose less messy food or something you know she will enjoy without getting distracted. Sometimes that may mean less healthy choices like French fries, which they may consider a rare treat.

Often waiters will bring crayons and paper for kids to color on. Some toddlers will just look at it as something else to put in their mouths. A better idea might be to bring small toys for them to play with that they don't get to use at home. It will hold their interest longer if they are unique "restaurant toys". And if you forget to bring something, look for things on the table for them to play with. For instance, drinking straws, toothpicks, and other small items will hold their attention until the food comes out.

3. Talk to your toddler.

Toddlers often start acting up because they're being ignored. While you may want to have some adult time with your spouse or a friend, it might be beneficial to spend some of that time talking with your child. Include them in conversations with the adults or talk to them directly about topics they enjoy. This will help the time pass faster until the food arrives. It also helps them develop socialization skills.

When you're talking with another adult and they want to interrupt, ask them to wait just a minute until you finish your conversation. Turn back to your toddler within one to two minutes and talk to them. This practice will help them develop self-control while ensuring they don't feel ignored.

Bon Appetit!

With a few adjustments, you can still enjoy an occasional meal out. Of course, this won't work every time and there will be fits from an unhappy toddler. In the midst of your embarrassment, just remember that this isn't the first time the wait staff and other customers have seen this kind of behavior so it's probably not a big deal to them. Anyone with kids will sympathize with you. And as with all things at this age, "this too shall pass".


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