Table for Three: Tips for Dining Out with Toddlers

Yes, you can eat out with your child. This advice will help you handle whatever drama she dishes out.
Manners & Responsibility: Eating Out with Kids at Restaurants
Manners & Responsibility: Eating Out with Kids at Restaurants
Dining Out with Toddlers

Recently, my extended family shared a meal at a boisterous Italian restaurant. Before our appetizers had arrived, my then 18-month-old nephew had spilled soda, played 12 games of "guess which hand the sugar packet's in," gone on a walking tour of the dining room, dropped two forks, and tried to take off his shirt while in his high chair. As we were leaving, I overheard a couple remark, "He's adorable, but I'm glad we're past that stage." As anyone with a 1- or 2-year-old knows, taking a toddler to a restaurant is no day at the beach (which, by the way, is no day at the beach either). It requires patience, planning, and a glass of pinot noir.

When you take a toddler out to eat, you're including a guest who finds it difficult to sit still, is prone to tantrums, and probably has a limited interest in new cuisine, says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. Still, dining out is a great way to encourage flexibility. "The first sojourns to a restaurant are about getting used to eating somewhere other than the kitchen table and eating food that's not prepared by Mommy or Daddy," adds etiquette expert Cindy Post, author of The Gift of Good Manners. Ready to survey the restaurant scene with your toddler? Try these tips.

Choose the Right Establishment

You don't have to limit yourself to fast food, but do pick a place that's family-friendly. "If you go to a restaurant that's too fancy, you're just setting your child up to fail," says Dr. Berman. "You'll be embarrassed and angry if your kid is disruptive, when really it's not her fault." So look for restaurants with a children's menu and high chairs -- and most important, where they're used to a little (or a lot of) noise and mess.

Never Take a Tired Toddler Out

Talk about a recipe for disaster! When you make your reservation, plan around your child's regular sleep schedule. If he typically naps at 1 p.m., an early dinner is a much better idea than lunch at noon, for example. "This is about your child's needs, not yours," says Dr. Berman, who recently staged a restaurant intervention with a mom whose 18-month-old was flinging silverware across the table. "This woman was at her wits' end. She was yelling, 'No! Do not do that!' as she grabbed her son's wrist and face. Eventually, I felt compelled to help out," she explains. "I bent down so the other diners couldn't hear me, and said, 'You seem to be having a hard time. I'm a mom too and also a therapist. Can I help?' Then we talked about how yelling wasn't helping the situation and what she could do to prevent these kinds of situations in the future. The woman actually seemed relieved." As they talked, Dr. Berman found out that it was an hour and a half past the kid's usual bedtime. No wonder he was out of control.

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