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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.
More Tips for Dining Out with Toddlers
When my own son was a toddler and we were getting ready for a restaurant meal, my husband always joked, "Do you have your bag of tricks?" But it was no laughing matter -- it worked! Finger puppets, sheer scarves for peekaboo, and sorting toys that fit on a high-chair tray are all great for keeping little kids occupied. As for electronic devices like your smartphone, "I know this won't win me any friends, but I'm not a fan of giving them to a child in a restaurant," says Dr. Berman. "It means she's missing out on the experience of interacting with people, which is part of what dining out is about."
Don't Get Too Comfortable
"Twenty minutes in a high chair is about all you can reasonably expect from a toddler," Post warns. (More active kids may not even last that long.) After that, you or your partner will probably have to take your kid for a walk before he can sit quietly again. "It takes impulse control to sit still," says Dr. Berman. "Little bodies need to move. Fortunately, taking a quick jaunt outside is like pressing the 'refresh' button."
Pick Your Plate ASAP
If you want time to actually eat your meal before a tantrum sets in, place your order as quickly as possible. You might think it's helpful to order your kid's meal first, but that tactic can backfire in the likely scenario that she finishes eating before your food even arrives -- and then she'll need something to occupy her while you eat. A better plan: Order together (don't be shy about asking the waiter to put a rush on it) and offer your kid some favorite snacks you've brought from home, which should keep her satisfied until her meal comes. Another word to the wise: You can usually check a restaurant's menu online ahead of time, which will save precious minutes at the table.
Respect Other Diners
Even if you're at an inexpensive family restaurant, other customers have the right to enjoy a meal in relative peace. If your child is getting restless or agitated, cart him out of the restaurant to settle down. If he still becomes loud and rowdy at the table, apologize to nearby folks as you walk out (you'll be surprised how many will give an empathetic "been there" nod). And don't forget to tip generously if you've left a mess behind.
Be Prepared To Leave
Even the most well-planned meal can turn into a complete dining disaster when an unpredictable toddler is involved. If things get really ugly, you may have only one choice: Take your food to go, put your child to sleep in his crib, and then enjoy your meal at home -- preferably by candlelight.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.