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Going out to eat with toddlers can get tricky. We’ve all been at a restaurant at one time or another and witnessed an epic toddler meltdown. Most of us with small kids have been the parents of the toddler having a melt down at one time or another. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can take your little family out to eat and survive. I dare say you can EVEN have a relaxing AND enjoyable time. You thinking I’ve lost my mind about right now? Nope! All you need is a few cleverly packed items in your bag, and a few strategies to keep all the logistics working in your favor. I’ve compiled my top tips for how to go out to eat with toddlers, just for you!
Location, Location, Location
First, go someplace that’s loud. Small, cozy, dark and quiet restaurants are for date night. They are NOT for family night, especially with small kids. We want a brightly lit, kid-friendly, nice, and loud restaurant. Types of places I would suggest are pizza places, burger joints, some chain restaurants (think like Chili’s, Logan’s Road House, Red Robin, Applebee’s), and most Mexican restaurants.
Our usual restaurant to go to is our longstanding favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s loud, it has lots of tv’s, the food is good and QUICK and there’s usually one or two sombrero birthday serenades that totally mystify the kids.
Pack Your Own Provisions
Make sure you take some provisions for the table. I always like to pack up coloring books and crayons, a travel game (this is our favorite), some race cars we can crash, and a few small books. This ensures you have several choices for little guys that have to wait patiently for a table and/or for food.
We always know what the kids want to order immediately. I like to look at the kid’s menu beforehand so we know what is available. So, when the waiter or waitress comes to take our drink order, we go ahead and order the kids’ food. That way, it comes out first, and we can help them get started on their meal. We can have everything cut up and ready to go, and our food isn’t sitting there getting cold while we are doing all the cutting and setting up. And then by the time we do all of that, our food arrives and we can all eat hot food.
Pack Food From Home
If you don’t think there is anything your child will eat, feel free to just pack them a dinner. Or if you have a child with some kind of allergy or dietary restriction, bring things you know they can have, just in case. Our oldest child has a severe gluten intolerance AND he’s a very picky eater too. And while that is something we are working on, there is no need to work on that while we are out enjoying a family meal. It hurts nothing to just pack a meal for your child. Additionally, you know that food is safe for your child to eat if they have an allergy issue and bringing your own food eliminates any worry you have about cross contamination.
iPads Aren’t The Worst
When our kids are done eating, and sometimes even before they are done, we will let them have iPad at the table. Lots of people have very strong feelings about electronics at the dinner table, much less at a restaurant.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Letting your child have an iPad at the table at a restaurant is NOT the end of modern civilization. Society as we know it will continue to function if my kids have fifteen minutes of iPad time while we finish eating.
It actually doesn’t hurt a thing. They view it as a treat, and it lets you finish your meal in peace. And it probably helps your fellow diners also finish their meals in peace.
Special Needs Tip
Additionally, if you have a special needs child or a child that struggles with sensory issues including having trouble with crowds or loud noises, letting them have the iPad in a restaurant is a fantastic strategy to help them acclimate to the louder environment.
Our oldest child has Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. And I’ve found walking into a restaurant that’s loud and bright can be very overwhelming for him. However, if you give him the iPad as you walk in, it totally gives him something to focus on that isn’t his surroundings. And the experience is much less overwhelming for him.
Having the iPad in hand means he has something to focus on and then he can slowly start taking in his surroundings at his own pace. We get to a table and settled and we notice that slowly, he starts to look around and notices everything in this new environment. And he’ll look at the iPad less and less as the meal goes on and look around the restaurant and engage more and more.
Have an Exit Strategy
Most importantly, have realistic expectations. Have an emergency (meaning toddler tantrum) exit strategy. If a meltdown is ensuing, and you know that you probably aren’t going to be able to get things back on track, be prepared to grab the keys and roll out. Remain calm and execute your strategy.
Our plan if something like this happens is that my husband will give me the keys and I’ll grab the tantrum-ridden child and we go to the car. If we have food already, my husband will ask for boxes to take food to go. If we have ordered the food but it’s not served yet or if we haven’t even ordered, he’ll ask for it to be made into a to-go order.
It doesn’t have to be any bigger deal than that. It might be two or three minutes of embarrassment while you get your struggling toddler out the door. But don’t worry. Everyone has been there. No one is judging. No one cares! They are living their own lives. And if they are looking at you, they are likely congratulating you from afar for handling your business and carrying through with your parenting warning.
You Are Teaching An Important Lesson
Most importantly, acting immediately also teaches your child there are consequences to their actions. They will learn that they misbehaved and acted inappropriately for a restaurant, you then warned them, they continued their behavior, you warned them the second and last time, they didn’t heed the warning, and you as the parent quickly followed through with the given warning. Simple as that. They will learn quickly that Mom and Dad mean “if you do this, then THIS happens.” It’s an excellent learning opportunity.
So, when this happens to you (Not if. WHEN. Because at some point it WILL happen to you) be prepared and don’t get bent out of shape and let it bother you. Like I said, your fellow diners understand, and likely are applauding your efforts. No one’s meal is ruined and everyone still has plenty of fun at the restaurant. Your toddler just isn’t powerful enough to take down an entire restaurant of people in one sitting with a few minutes of tantrum. So, calm down and relax. It’s not the end of the world if you have to take a screaming child out to the car.
To sum up, going out to eat with toddlers doesn’t have to be stressful or challenging. A few quick preparations ahead of time make it an easy and enjoyable time for everyone. And the more you do it, the better your child will get at going out to eat. If you never give them the chance, then they won’t be able to learn how to act in restaurants. So pick a suitable location, pack your provisions and then go out and enjoy an evening with your family and have a nice meal. And if it all goes to hell, order extra dessert to go and know that the sun will still rise tomorrow and the earth will continue to rotate. Just keep trying ideas and just keep shuffling.