Imagine eating dinner in a restaurant, with your toddler, and truly enjoying the experience and the food. What’s more, imagine the people around you enjoying their meals without interruption! No screaming, no fighting, no throwing food or loud obnoxious wails. Kids will be kids, but it is possible to enjoy a night out with them without all of the drama.
I am the parent of a teenager, a three year old and a two year old. I know all about drama! My two youngest children are the most energetic and loud little boys that I have ever met. And yet I am still able to enjoy restaurant dining with them. The excitement of a new environment, the wide eyed wonder of a new food sensation and the general enthusiasm of a child are not lost amidst crying jags and struggles for dominance. Here are several tips to help you tame the wild beast inside your toddler when it is time to go out on the town for dinner.
One reason that toddlers act out at dinner is that they are usually over tired and cranky. Quite often we do not consider their schedules when we decide to go out to eat. By the time we get to the restaurant, are seated and food finally shows up, it could be hours past their normal bedtime. Even if you opt for an earlier dinner, there are times when toddlers are just tired. Taking any toddler anywhere when they are tired is asking for trouble. If your child has missed a nap or it is close to their bedtime, don’t even attempt a dinner out. It will only end in tears. Plan ahead, make sure they have napped adequately and eat earlier than is normal to make sure the experience is enjoyable.
If a toddler is hungry, they want to eat. Toddlers, and younger children, just do not understand the concept of time. They are not able to grasp the idea that if they just wait 10 minutes they will have yummy food. They want to eat right now. Feed your child a light snack before you leave for the restaurant. Not a meal, just a snack. When you get to the restaurant, make sure that the first thing that you order, along with your drinks, is your child’s meal. That way, the food gets to your toddler before they run out of interesting things to do and look at. The food is then keeping them busy while you are eating your salad or appetizers and then your meal. If they finish before you do, they may want to taste some of your food and have some new taste experiences.
Toddlers get bored. And when they get bored, they act out. It’s just a fact. Keeping your toddler entertained is a key component to a quiet and enjoyable dinner. Pack a bag with some simple, quiet toys for your child. You may consider having special toys or activities that they only get to play with while you are at a restaurant. Most family oriented restaurants will provide crayons and a place mat to draw on. While this is great, if your toddler is like mine they will eat the crayons, rip the place mat and holler for more! I pack several small toys, washable markers and a coloring book right in my diaper bag with diapers wipes and a change of clothes. Choosing a restaurant with lots of neat decorations on the wall is also a way to keep your toddler entertained. As they look at different items you can tell them what they are and even learn something!
If you have not taken your toddler out to eat very often or have had bad luck in the past with restaurants, you may want to train them a little bit. Go to lunch first! Choose a restaurant that is not as busy and is family oriented. Make sure your toddler is well rested and give it a shot. Talk to your toddler about what a restaurant is and that you will come back again. Let them explore the restaurant and see what it is like in the day time when they are a little better behaved. Keep trying it and over time your toddler will learn what correct behavior is.
My most important rule for dining out with children is to not be afraid to get take out. If your child is having a meltdown and you just cannot get them calm or if they are refusing to listen, just ask for your order to go. Don’t blame your child or tell them they are bad. Just tell them that they are not acting appropriately and you will come back when they can behave better. Then go home and have a picnic in your living room. Also, remember that if you are on your way to a restaurant or make plans and then see that your toddler is over tired or being extremely uncooperative…. change your plans. It is better to go through a drive through or cook at home unexpectedly than to frustrate and upset yourself, your toddler and all of the people dining around you.
Just remember to make the experience fun for your child. They will want to do it again and will learn to behave in the appropriate manner because they want to. Enjoy their excitement and awe of their surroundings. Enjoy your food. And don’t be afraid to say “I need that to go” when it comes down to the line!