Going out to eat with my family always seems like a great idea – at first. For a second or two, I forget that my husband and I are the parents of two children under the age of four. But when you both work full-time jobs and feel like you have been hit by a train at the end of each day, dining out can be easier than cooking and cleaning up your own kitchen. So while eating out with toddlers is certainly not always easy, I have managed to come up with a few necessary tips on making it through a meal out with toddlers.
Rule 1: The earlier the better.
My friends laugh that my family likes to eat during the early bird special. But when you are dealing with grumpy toddlers, who are completely drained from childcare and preschool, eating an early dinner out is a must. The restaurant is not too crowded and service is usually much quicker. If you cannot get there until after six, then you are usually in for a longer wait time – on the table and the food. So while we may not qualify for the senior discount, we do enjoy a relatively quick meal!
Rule 2: Distractions, distractions, distractions.
Bring some toys for the kiddos, but not too many. A friend of mine once let her toddler bring an entire bucket full of toy cars out to eat with us. There were cars everywhere! The waiter was dodging them on the floor left and right. They were driving over our plates, silverware.
Not a great idea. But one or two small toys can usually keep them entertained until the meal is served. We do make our kids put toys away while they eat though. And make sure you bring toys that they are not going to fight over in the middle of the restaurant. That’s the worst. It needs to be a fair and even toy experience.
Rule 3: Bring your own snacks.
In my opinion, fruit snacks are the greatest snack food ever invented. They are small, travel easily and my kids love them. They also don’t fill my children up before they get their meal. Toddlers have no concept of time and you cannot communicate to them how soon a meal is going to be brought to the table.Be prepared with small, healthy and diversionary snacks that are not too filling and that they actually like to eat. You know your child best, so do not serve them something that will cause a tantrum once they see it.
Rule 4: Go somewhere that is familiar to your children.
Toddlers can become clingy and shy at places that are new and overwhelming. My boys have been eating at the same local Italian restaurant at least once a week since they were both a few days old. And we are so thankful to the owner and wait-staff there. Because we frequent this place so much, we really feel like they are close friends. My boys feel at home with them and sometimes if a tantrum is about to occur, our favorite waitress will even bring a special treat to the table or take them from us for a few minutes and walk them around the restaurant as a distraction. We make sure to leave a nice tip when this happens!
Rule 5: Be prepared for a quick getaway.
This might be the most important rule. Make sure you or your husband ask for the check as soon as the meal is served. This ensures a fast escape if chaos ensues after the food is gone! Once my kids are done eating, they are ready to go immediately, and they let everyone know it. A toddler is not physically capable of sitting somewhere for longer than 45 minutes. I even have my husband take the kids out to the car so I can settle the bill (and sneak in a few more bites) in peace.
Rule 6: The kids’ menu is not always the best option.
I learned this when I would order a grilled chicken salad and my two little moochers would eat all of the cheese, croutons, grilled chicken, and cherry tomatoes out of it before their meal had even arrived. While I didn’t love eating a plate of just lettuce for dinner, I did realize that instead of ordering two kids meals, I could order a salad for them to split and a side of rice or a vegetable. Older kids can also split one adult meal. Portions are so big now in most restaurants that it is usually enough to go around and it will save you money in the long run.
Rule 7: Make sure your kids’ bottoms are firmly planted in their own seats.
Yes, your kids are adorable. Yes, they are funny and endearing. But trust me, the other people in that restaurant did not decide to eat out because they wanted to see your kid rolling around on the floor in front of their table. Even if they have their own kids, or grandkids, nobody thinks it’s cute. The truth is, eating out with your little darlings needs to be a carefully planned and calculated task. But if you are prepared and ready to roll once you get there, it can be an easy and sometimes even enjoyable event. I also prefer it to washing dishes any night of the week.