Eating out with a toddler is a healthy developmental milestone for parent and child alike. For your toddler, it’s an opportunity to see new places and people, try different foods, and start to practice dining skills. For you, dining out can provide a welcome change of scenery.
Nervous about making it go smoothly? Put these tips on your planning menu before eating out with a toddler.
Set realistic expectations. Think practice, not perfect. You may need to roll with spills, dropped napkins, or a quick-paced meal. Don’t expect too much from your child but also avoid spoiling other patrons’ meals if your toddler’s behavior gets out of control.
Choose the right restaurant. A family-friendly eatery is a safer pick at this age than your favorite candlelit spot, where service might be slower and less focused on kids. Family-friendly doesn’t have to mean fast food though. Signs that kids are welcome at sit-down restaurants: high chairs, special kids’ menus with smaller portions, “kids eat free” offers, crayons at the table, and other children in attendance.
Time the meal right. Pick a time that’s in sync with your toddler’s schedule. A 7 P.M. reservation won’t suit a child whose regular bedtime is 7:30. Go early so you won’t have to wait for a table.
Pack toddler tools. The meal may go more smoothly if you bring along your toddler’s own cup (ideally with a lid), bib, and toddler-size eating utensils.
Bring kid-friendly entertainment. Give your child something to do while waiting for your order: a board book your child hasn’t seen before or a new quiet toy, for example.
Clear the dinner table of dangers. Move candles, condiments, knives, and glasses of water out of reach as soon as you sit down.
Mix familiar toddler foods with new ones. Some toddlers are adventurous eaters, but most are naturally a little finicky and may be wary of new foods. To avoid a ruckus, it helps to order something you know your child will like along with something new to try (maybe a taste from your plate).
Make smart portion choices. An adult-size portion is too big for a toddler and likely to tempt her to make a mess. If child-size options aren’t available, order an appetizer or share part of your meal.
Keep the meal short and sweet. Order drinks, entrées, and desserts all at once, and ask for the check at the same time, to minimize the waiting time that can test a toddler’s limited patience. When your toddler finishes eating and toys no longer hold her attention, it’s best to pay and go.
More leisurely meals are in your future as your child grows. But in the meantime, pat yourself and your toddler on the back for enjoying some time out on the town together.