Check, Please! How to Eat Out with Toddlers

As most parents know, taking a 1-year-old out to eat can be a challenge. "At this age, toddlers aren't programmed to sit still," says Sheila Gahagan, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. On top of that, they haven't learned to control their impulses yet. But that doesn't mean you're stuck in the kitchen for the next five years. There are some simple steps you can take to set her up for a happy, stress-free meal.

Dining Disaster: Guests or staff make you feel unwelcome

Manners & Responsibility: Eating Out with Kids at Restaurants
Manners & Responsibility: Eating Out with Kids at Restaurants

Supper Success: This won't happen if you stick to family-friendly restaurants: People expect children at these places. And there's less pressure on you -- and your child -- to behave perfectly because if your toddler does act up, he'll be surrounded by other families and probably won't be the only noisy child.

Take time to do a little research. Ask your friends and family for recommendations of places where they feel comfortable eating with kids. You can even call ahead or check out the place on your own to find out about the restaurant's atmosphere. Does it offer a kids' menu? Are there booths, or is the seating limited to tables close together? Sara Wutzke, a Massachusetts mom of two, uses her own high-chair test. "I ask if they have one available for my child before we sit down," she says. "If they don't, we leave. No high chairs is usually a sign that it's not a kid-friendly place."

Dining Disaster: Your toddler refuses to sit still

Supper Success: Be realistic. "It's normal for toddlers to have a short attention span and an overwhelming urge to explore," explains W. George Scarlett, PhD, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. Since you can't force your toddler to sit for long periods of time, try giving in to her demands -- at least temporarily. After you order, walk your child outside or to an empty part of the restaurant to let her wander around for a bit. Then, she'll be ready to sit and take a break when the meal comes to the table.

If you've got a really active child, make sure you order her food first and ask to have it brought out as soon as it's ready. You can also consider eating in shifts. "We stagger the order so my husband's food comes first," says Jennifer Roberts, mom to a 20-month-old. "He eats while I entertain Kennedy. By the time he's done, we can switch off and my meal is still hot."

Dining Disaster: You know it's only minutes before a meltdown

Supper Success: Don't go during peak dining times, when service can be slow. "We never arrive at a restaurant later than 5 p.m. for dinner," says Dawn Champion, a mother of two in Alexandria, Virginia. "If you go at the beginning of the dinner service, it's less crowded, and you'll get seated and served right away."

Remember to pace yourself. If you give your child all his toys or snacks as soon as you sit down, you won't have anything left to distract him with while you're waiting or eating. As a last resort, have the waiter bring some bread for the table. This will keep his little hands -- and mouth -- occupied. It's also a good idea to ask for the check and doggie bags as soon as you place your order. That way, you can gracefully exit (with your food!) if things go south. And make sure you pick a time when your child is least likely to be cranky. If he takes a nap every day at 1 p.m., it's probably a better idea to go out for dinner than for a noon lunch.

Dining Disaster: You're halfway through dinner when your kid starts to throw things

Supper Success: Your child's been on her best behavior -- and you didn't notice. Now she's looking for some attention. "Often, when adults go out to eat, they think it's time to relax and have adult conversation. That's when a child starts to get antsy," says Jayne Bellando, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at the Arkansas Children's Hospital, in Little Rock.

Engage her from the start by including her in the conversation: Ask her questions about her surroundings, and make eye contact with her. And don't forget to praise how well she's sitting or eating. If she feels ignored or bored, she'll do whatever it takes to get your attention -- and everyone else's in the restaurant.

Dos and Don't of Eating Out with Toddlers

Do apologize to the tables around you if your child starts screaming or throwing things.

Don't let your toddler roam around your area on his own. It can be distracting to the other diners.

Do thank your waiter for the extra effort (carrying the high chair, going back for special orders) -- and leave a nice tip.

Don't forget to clean up after yourself. If your toddler pulls all the napkins out of the dispenser, for example, don't take off and leave the mess for the waiter to handle.

Eating-Out Essentials to Bring

It may seem odd to take food to a restaurant, but, trust us, you'll be happy to have that container of Cheerios if you get stuck waiting for a table or for the food to arrive.

Bath Books
Waterproof books are the perfect restaurant toy: You can wipe off any food or spills, and they're soft so your child can't break anything with them.

Baby Wipes
A small pack of wet wipes is a great way to clean a sticky table or sticky fingers before and after eating.

Toppers To-Go
Stashed inside a disposable sippy cup are a fork, spoon, place mat, and bib -- everything you need for dining out easily.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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