There are days that I cringe when “dine-out” and “toddler” are spoken in the same sentence. Dining out with a toddler is no easy task. It is, however, a great opportunity to build skills with your toddler, and believe it or not, it can be fun and stress free. Here are a few simple tips to enjoy the dining out experience with your toddler!
CHILD FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS
It will not always be your choice where you will be having dinner. If it is your choice, try to find a child friendly restaurant (and I don’t just mean the places that have slides). There are a few things that make restaurants a little more family friendly.
Places that have lines instead of servers are a great way to keep your child entertained longer. It can be hard sitting at a table waiting for food after a server takes an order.
Booths are great hidden little gems in restaurants. You can more easily block in a child in a booth than you can with a table and chairs.
Child friendly food is KEY. Check out the menu beforehand when you are planning out your family date. Be sure there are menu choices that your child will actually like!
One of the restaurants that my family absolutely loves is Cafe Zupas! Not only is the food DELICIOUS but they have great staff, an awesome Kids meal, a child friendly set up, a cell phone station that is a big bonus, booths, and you get your food by standing in a line rather than by a server. Their Kids menu is a hit and always comes with a little treat. Every time we take our family to Café Zupas, our dining out experience is a total success.
Before you even enter the restaurant, set expectations of how you expect your toddler to act. Explain to them that you are going to be at a restaurant with other people who want to enjoy their meal. Remind your child about inside voices, staying at the table, and how to be respectful. Come up with a plan of action if a toddler tantrum is to arise and what consequences will come with misbehavior.
By setting the expectations beforehand, you are not only helping your toddler remember how to act but you are also preparing yourself. An advanced plan, including what consequences are in place, will empower you to react more quickly and calmly if a situation is to arise.
LIMIT MENU OPTIONS
On top of checking out the menu beforehand, you may want to consider limiting the menu options for your child. If you know they like Mac & Cheese or Nuggets, and both are on the list, simply give them those options. There is no need to list off six options to a toddler. Give them – at maximum – two to three options. Their decision will be much easier, and they will feel like they made a big choice, which in turn makes children feel confident and better behaved.
ENTERTAINMENT FOR CHILDREN
When you get to the restaurant ask if they have coloring books, crayons or other entertainment for kids. Get your child set up with something fun from the get go. If needed, bring a few things from home, but sure to leave the rolling toys at home! Cars, balls and other toys with wheels or that roll are a disaster waiting to happen. If you need to bring toys or activities, consider crayons (I swear by triangle crayons), markers, sticker books, or other small quiet activities.
ENGAGE YOUR CHILD IN CONVERSATION
It is easy to put a phone in front of a child and enjoy the meal with the other adults, but if you are going to bring a toddler along, be sure to treat them as one of the group! Talk to your toddler. Take the time to teach and get to know your child during your meal. There are so many learning experiences during meal time: counting food items, talking about healthy food choices, getting to know their likes and dislikes, as well as listening to their funny little stories. The options are endless.
KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET
Think about it this way…. your toddler’s attention span is one minute for every year of life, so we are talking only two to three minutes for most toddlers. Am I saying your dinner should last two to three minutes? No way! Just keep your toddler’s attention span in mind as you are planning out your dining experience. A two hour dine-out session is just not going to be a pretty sight. Think about that and plan accordingly.
REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOR
Some call it bribery, some call it positive reinforcement, some call it rewarding. I call it genius. It’s not always appropriate to reward your child with tangible objects, but a little dessert here and there never hurts. In fact, while dining out it could save your sanity. If someone told me I’d get a cake for great behavior, you’d better believe I would be acting like an angel! Let your child know beforehand that they will be able to pick out a treat or other reinforcing reward after the meal. Remind them throughout the meal that they are doing a good job, and therefore are earning their reward. If bad behavior arises, remind them of the deal you made. They will shape right up.
BE PREPARED FOR MESSES
It is completely unavoidable. You are going to encounter a mess. Spills, squashed food, slobber. If you can name it, you can probably expect it. Be prepared mentally and physically. If you go in knowing that something is more than likely going to spill, you’ll be able to more easily keep your cool when it does happen! Keep wipes, paper towels, napkins and even a change of clothes nearby. Being prepared with napkins (lots of them) will help you when an accident does occur – no need to scramble to clean the mess. Oh yeah… and be respectful when a mess does happen. Clean it up! Not only is it respectful to the staff, but it teaches your child good restaurant behavior.
Most importantly…have fun! You are with your lovely little humans! Try to take advantage of the crazy and enjoy yourself. They are only this teensy for so long – love on them and their fun little personalities, and enjoy your time with them. Your dining experience will go much better if you do, I promise!
Alexandra Bailey is the founder and managing editor of Mom’s Bag of Tricks, a blog that provides tips, tricks, info, and ideas for parents of children with and without disabilities. She is a special educator emphasizing in Early Childhood Special Ed, Rehabilitation, and Child Development. She and her husband are raising their two little boys in Northern Utah.