Eating out with a toddler is often anything but relaxing.
You spend the entire time stressing over your antsy child who just won’t sit still, doesn’t want to eat, and suddenly doesn’t understand the meaning of “inside voice”.
A recipe for a very unappealing meal!
Almost every parent has been there at one point or another.
So firstly, don’t think your child is the only one. Or that all of the other diners are judging you!
If they’ve been in your shoes, they know how stressful/embarrassing/exhausting the entire experience can be.
What if I told you that with some simple tips and tricks, eating out with a toddler doesn’t have to be?
Dare I say, it may even become… enjoyable?!
Let me show you how!
Try out one (or all!) of the suggestions below and you’ll be amazed at the difference!
Why Is Eating Out with a Toddler so Difficult?
Toddlers are known for their short attention spans. It just comes with their age.
They bounce from activity to activity with an imagination that runs faster than their feet.
Not to mention their limitless energy.
Eating out with a toddler (usually) means they are expected to sit in one place, be quiet, use their best manners, practice patience, and wait for their meal (which looks different from what they’re used to eating).
All of these expectations combined are a pretty big responsibility for a toddler to do on their own!
Can’t they just sit still and be silent?
Well, a big factor why toddlers won’t do either of those when at a restaurant is because they are BORED with most of the places us adults want to eat.
And their patience is still a work-in-progress.
Have you ever noticed how well your little one behaves at the playground? That’s because the park is their zone!
Besides a few ground rules, they are doing what they want to do, what their body is telling them to do – run wild and burn that energy!
Flourishing imaginations thrive on exploration! (More about that here.)
Restaurants are another story.
There’s minimal opportunity to explore or burn energy.
But it’s still something they should get used to because behaving while dining out is a skill they need to learn at some point.
Since they’re still little, let’s take little steps with them.
The key to a peaceful dining experience when eating out with a toddler is to keep them entertained and occupied so that it’s enjoyable for them at a level that’s acceptable for our adult expectations.
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- Toddler Restaurant Toys
Put together a dining-out only “toy” bag to bring anytime you go out to eat.
Keep it in your car or in the coat closet, but just try your best not to let them have a go at the toys very frequently (besides dining out).
The reason I use quotes around the word “toy” is because it doesn’t actually have to be filled with toys at all.
Just pop in fascinating objects that will peak your little one’s interest.
I’ve included old (cheap) jewelry, ancient flip phones, coin purse, chip clips, and keychains.
Toddlers are drawn to random bits and bobs so scour through your bedside tables or junk drawers and choose some items that are toddler-safe and toddler-intriguing!
- Paint With Water – The Best Toddler Restaurant Activity
Paint with water pads are an absolute game-changer!
Many restaurants provide crayons and colouring sheets for keeping your munchkin entertained. This can be a fine option for some families but it depends on your child’s personality and age.
But for many parents, that’s just a nightmare waiting to happen.
You look away for all of 16 seconds and your toddler has coloured on the table, the seats, and chewed on a third of each of the crayons creating a colourful rainbow of wax shards sprinkled all over the place.
This is where the incredible invention of “paint with water” comes in.
These pads are affordable AND reusable. When they dry, your kiddo can paint to their heart’s content, over and over.
The paintbrush pens are easily filled with a pretty small dribble of water (not enough for them to cause any water damage).
Similar to the first recommendation, I try to keep this activity solely for going out situations when I need the kids to be calm (and under control).
Each time I bring it out it’s like a fascinating art project that they’ve never seen before!
- Reusable Sticker Books – Another Easy Toddler Restaurant Acvtivity
Reusable sticker books are another fun activity that is actually restaurant-safe!
Regular sticky stickers may not be a bright idea when eating out with a toddler as they really adhere and often leave a sticky gooey residue.
But the reusable kind only sticks temporarily which means they can be pulled off of any surface with ease.
And they can be used over and over as well! Win-win!
- Snacks from Home
Why would I bring snacks to a restaurant?
Well, over the years YOU have become a pro at patience so the 35+ minutes it takes to make your meal is no big deal.
Your toddler, on the other hand, is still working on that one so keeping their composure while they get hungry may not last very long.
A small snack is a great way to pass the time and satisfy their need for food (immediately).
I like to bring airy snacks that don’t actually fill them up too much so that they’ll still want to eat their meal when it eventually arrives at the table.
Some ideas are:
- Rice cakes
- Puff cereal
- Wafer crackers
- Relax the Picky Eating Rules
While we’re on the topic of eating, try not to be too strict with what or how much the toddler eats of the ordered meal at a restaurant. We need to understand that everything is pretty new for them: location, chair, dishes and food.
A meal may look and sound like something they’d easily devour at home, but when out of their comfort zone, mealtime can be overwhelming.
You can work on their picky eating habits any other time, but try easing up when out for a meal.
By letting them graze on the items that are of interest, you’re encouraging them to try new foods (even if that bowl of mac and cheese looks exactly like their favourite home-cooked plate).
Ask to wrap up any leftovers, they may even want it later.
- Bring Kid-friendly Dishes
Restaurant dishes can be a big source of aggravation for parents.
Their tots love to clang them about or move them around all over the place, coming far too close to the edge of the table time after time.
If and when you can, plan ahead and bring a couple toddler-friendly dishes from home. The familiarity will make the dishes less desirable to entertain themselves with. And it may even make the food more recognizable and tempting to eat!
Silicone divider plates are a perfect option as they’re fairly sturdy on the table and won’t make noise if bumped around. The sections can be filled with the food you’ve ordered but portion out wisely so that your toddler doesn’t become overloaded with a whopping helping of new food.
Silicone or metal straws (or their favourite sippy-cup) can be easily tossed into your diaper bag for the meal.
Even bring along familiar cutlery or a bib, if needed.
- Make Conversation
That’s right, Mom and Dad…
I know you’d love a date night but your intimate conversation may have to wait for another night.
Why not involve your toddler in the conversation? Give them some undivided positive attention without them demanding the negative kind!
And don’t be boring.
Try to think of fun things your kid actually would want to talk about.
What are they obsessed with these days? What has been sparking their imagination?
Avoid topics that will trigger an unwanted response (like “how loud do you think howler monkeys howl?”… they’ll probably want to provide an example.)
Mealtime, whether at home or out, can be a wonderful time to get to know your baby even better.
Let them feel like they’re at the “big kid” table by joining in the conversation and keeping them engaged.
Don’t know what to talk about with your child? Play a quiet game of I Spy with things you spot around you!
- Time It Wisely
Some occasions can’t be perfectly timed, but whenever possible, take your little one’s schedule into account.
Don’t plan to be eating out with a toddler when it’s already an hour past their bedtime. It’s just not going to go as smoothly as you want. And it doesn’t seem fair to them either.
Also, be considerate of their usual meal timing.
Just because you can wait, doesn’t mean they can.
Many toddlers become accustomed to their routines so they may become cranky or extra-irritable if it’s much past their usual dinner hour.
- Defuse and Distract!
One of the wisest parenthood sayings I’ve seen is that “an escalated adult cannot de-escalate an escalated child”.
So now’s your time to keep cool and reduce any surging tempers (your toddlers or your own). You need to spot unwanted behaviours a mile away and defuse them before they even begin.
Other diners will likely forgive a toddler having a temper tantrum but not a parent!
You don’t need to react. You don’t need to scold. Take a deep breath and speak to them quietly and calmly.
It’s not always easy – I know!
Try to do your best to find the technique that will minimize unwanted behaviour.
Defuse and distract is a great way to get through an event or meal without arguments or meltdowns.
Calmly remind your child of what restaurant expectations are and rather than blowing it into a full-on lecture, quickly distract them with something acceptable.
Use their short attention span to your advantage and keep their mind focussed on positive emotions and activities.
Don’t forget to praise them when they’re doing a good job!
Eating out with a toddler should be an enjoyable event, so when the time comes that it really isn’t one… call it a day and try again the next time. Ask for your food to be wrapped up if needed and take it to go.
Toddlerhood can be exhausting and overwhelming, but these experiences help them develop new skills for appropriate restaurant behaviour. By going prepared and helping them learn, they will quickly see how fun (and not boring) eating out can be!