When you’re brave enough to take a toddler out to eat: 7 steps to preserve your family’s sanity

Small children suck at dining in restaurants. You may have noticed this. It’s completely normal – they don’t want to sit still, all they want to do is play, and they have absolutely no manners. It’s not really fair to ask them to do any better, and they won’t get better at these skills until they are well on their way to Kindergarten (some children are better than others, and under the age of 1, children are essentially portable, so they may do fine in a restaurant). But it’s not reasonable to expect that they will tolerate what for them amounts to sheer torture without a small (or large) amount of protest and paddling the canoe in the wrong direction.

So, if the restaurant deities are whispering to you and you simply must heed their call, here’s some advice to help you navigate the experience with your spirit and dignity (mostly) intact.

1. Eat Early

I recommend not heading out to eat anywhere within the 2 hours before your kid’s bedtime – they need this precious time to connect with their parents and wind down.  Closer to bedtime, children’s already limited resources are closer to being fully tapped, leaving them with little capacity to be patient and sit still.  Between 5-6:00pm is often a great time to take children out to eat dinner, as restaurants are usually less crowded at this time and sometimes offer happy hour specials to boot. Try lunchtime dining for even less potential bedtime interference.

2. Eat Often

Familiar settings can help a child adjust to the potential overwhelming nature of restaurant dining.  The regular servers will get to know you and your family, rendering them less threatening to your child and also helping them be patient with whatever challenges your child may have during the dining experience.

3. Choose Wisely

Save the 5-star places for a fancy date night; your child will at best not appreciate the fine cuisine, and at worst take everyone’s experience down a few stars. When selecting your dining destination, make it family friendly! The Yelp app actually has a feature that can tell you if a restaurant is child friendly. Child friendliness includes things like offering crayons and paper, bright lighting, plenty of space to move around, interesting and kid appropriate decor (fishtanks for the win), friendly staff, reasonable prices, and adult beverages for the caregivers who will most definitely be needing them by the time dinner rolls around.

4. Order Ahead

This is by far my favorite parenting restaurant hack. On your way to the restaurant, call and place your order for dine-in. Let them know you have a small child and are ordering in advance to avoid waiting (sometimes they have a hard time understanding this, so be patient).  Then, when you arrive, your food is magically waiting for you at the table!

5. Bring Provisions

Your child will probably (read: definitely) not want to eat anything you’ve ordered them. Spare the drama (and pricey kids menu options) and pack something you know your kid will enjoy eating.

Also, bring stuff to keep your kiddo occupied: small toys that won’t cause trauma if they get lost (I like little plastic animals for this), paper/crayons, etc. You may want to pack a restaurant bag that stays in the car and is full of go-to play items.I consider screens a nuclear option, as the family meal is the last bastion of social contact. That being said, if you absolutely must dine out and all your other attempts to occupy your child’s interests have failed, you’re in the driver’s seat, so deploy that screen strategically if you must.

6. Pay Upon Arrival

Get out your credit card and take care of the check the moment you sit down, so you aren’t left waiting for it with your cranky child melting down.

7. And When in Doubt…Stay at Home!

As I mentioned in my post about traveling with small children, sometimes the best option is simply to stay home. You don’t even have to cook; whether what’s on the table came from UberEats, take-out/delivery, or Trader Joe’s frozen section, a family meal together is a priceless affair. Toddler tapas, anyone?


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REBEKKA_MONEY1_FIN.min-minRebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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