How to Take a Toddler to a Restaurant…Without Going Insane!

Last week was my father-in-law’s birthday. The whole family and several friends were invited to out to eat at one of the fancier restaurants in our town. Hannah, being the only grandchild, was not only expected to be there, but was practically the guest of honor. All eyes would be on her. Yes, that’s right, I would have to take a toddler to a RESTAURANT (cue scary music here).

Situations like these used to make me break out in a cold sweat, but this has actually gotten to be a semi-regular occurrence in my family, because my in-laws like to eat out. A LOT.

When I was pregnant, I always assumed I would not see the inside of a restaurant until 2030, unless, of course, we got a babysitter for date night (one perk of being the only grandchild: always a babysitter around!). Actually, this has not been the case, and we dine out pretty regularly with Hannah.

Like any other two and a half year old, Hannah is wiggly, sometimes loud, and not very patient when it comes to her food, basically one part adorable, one part wild animal! A disaster waiting to happen, right? Nope! I’ve learned some handy tips and I ALWAYS come prepared (scout’s motto AND mama’s motto, am I right?). Hannah is usually extremely well behaved and I always get compliments at the end of our meals.

Today I want to share with you some of the tips and tricks I use when Hannah comes out to eat with us. Hopefully you too will be able to dine out with your little critters without a therapist visit directly afterwards!

How to Take a Toddler to a Restaurant

Prep Work: Before the Meal

Having a successful meal out starts at home. You want to make sure you give your toddler lots of exercise and attention before the meal. Do not, under any circumstance, expect your child to play calmly and quietly for half an hour before the meal, and then expect them to stay calm and quiet throughout the meal as well! Toddlers are not built like that. Play some fun games and give them your undivided attention before it’s time to go. One caveat: if you are playing very active wild games, your little one may need a few minutes of downtime before leaving. Try reading a few stories curled up on the couch so he or she is not hanging from the chandelier at the restaurant.

Also, plan out nap and mealtime appropriately. It’s best not to skip or alter nap time if you want a happy child. Likewise, if the meal is going to extend past Junior’s bedtime, plan on making an early exit, or reschedule for half an hour earlier. A busy restaurant plus an overtired toddler equals no bueno!

Same thing goes for your babe’s own personal dinning schedule. Don’t assume your child can wait until a 7:00 start time for a dinner out if they regularly eat supper at 5:00.  Give them their regular meal and then order something light for them at the restaurant.

Bring Toys…Lots of Toys!

This is key. No toddler is going to happily wait half an hour, engaging in small talk, for their food. You will need to bring reinforcements, but you also don’t want to be lugging even more bags than already necessary.  I love to bring small colouring books and crayons with me. A pack of stickers ends up in Hannah’s hands anytime my mom comes with us. These “On the Go” toys from Melissa and Doug are just the right size to fit in a purse or diaper bag and will entertain your child during the wait time for their meal. Even better, stash some of these away and don’t like the kids play with them at home. This way, they are “new” toys every time you go out.

Change of Scenery

Even with lots of entertainment at the table, your toddler will likely have trouble sitting still for a long time. After you place your order, take a little break by letting your child walk around (keep out of the way of waitstaff with hot food!). If the dining establishment is not family friendly (been there!) going outside for a few minutes may be best. Even a trip to the bathroom (and if you’re potty-training, you may want to take a couple) will be a nice change of scenery.

Baby Foodie

Like many moms, I always keep a few snacks in my purse in case I ever hear the dreaded words “I hungwee mama.” There is nothing wrong with giving your little one  a few snacks while they wait for their meal (most waitstaff and customers will appreciate this if it heads off a screaming banshee, I mean your sweet child). Alternatively, you may want to have your tot’s meal served before the rest of the food, or to order a kid friendly appetizer. The less waiting for food, the better!

This is also not the time to have your toddler try out new dishes. If your grilled cheese-loving kid is served a big old plate of curry, that alone may be enough for a tantrum. Pick something accessible and familiar for your child to eat (I go with pasta 9/10 times). You can share some bites from your plate if you want your toddler to taste a new dish.

You may also want to call ahead or go online to check out the menu options for children, especially if you’ve got a picky eater. If there’s nothing appealing to you child, ask if accommodations can be made. Most restaurants are happy to oblige, rather than have customers go elsewhere.

Bring a Buddy

Dining out with a toddler is no joke. Reinforcements are key, even after all the prep work, toys and scenery changes. Bring your husband, your mother, or enlist a friend to be ready to lend a hand in case of emergencies. Especially if you have two or more kids (and I salute you for even attempting this), back up is crucial.

Practice Makes Perfect

Even if the first time you eat out is a disaster, don’t let it discourage you. The more you practice restaurant manners and expectations, the more your child will learn to behave. Make it a point to take yours kids out semi-regularly (perhaps at kid-friendly restaurants that are a little more forgiving of faux-pas). As they grow, they will learn about manners and expected behaviour and become the little lady or gentleman you have dreamed of.

Those are my fail proof tips for taking a toddler to a restaurant. Do you have any other handy pointers to add to this list? Please let me know!

Taking a Toddler to a Restaurant

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8 thoughts on “How to Take a Toddler to a Restaurant…Without Going Insane!

  1. Ugh, these are such great tips!! We used to dine out fairly often with our toddler, Theo. Then we had twins, and we literally NEVER take them to restaurants. Theo is now 3.5, and the twins, Josie and Margo are 1.5, and we just don’t do it. We’re outnumbered, the girls are in the food throwing stage, and it’s just not a fun experience.
    We will take Theo out with just one of us occasionally, because 1. it’s a fun outing for him, and 2. he needs to learn how to behave at a restaurant. Not sure when my girls will learn that lol, maybe when I’m brave enough to take them! Thanks for the great post 🙂

  2. We have not attempted this yet and our baby is 6 months, though we will have to eventually! These are some great tips and I’m sure toys make it easier as then they aren’t bored!

  3. These are great tips! I love the water wow by m&d and I have that exact dinosaur marker book in the car for a ‘patience emergency.’
    We also try to take Babystar for a walk outside if possible after sitting for a bit but before the food is served. It seems to help.

  4. This is one of the most helpful blog posts I’ve read in a long time! I especially like the idea of having special eating out toys. And I’ve definitely noticed that timing it right around naps and bedtime is super important.

  5. We love the Melissa & Doug travel activities so much! They’ve been a big hit with both girls. We also use our phones, but only after they’ve eaten so they still participate in the meal as part of the family.

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