I think lots of parents would agree that a good babysitter can be worth every penny when it comes to trying to enjoy a nice night out to dinner. Especially parents of toddlers, most especially parents of toddlers like mine… she won’t sit still, she tires easily of the crayons and coloring pages restaurants sometimes provide. Still, it just isn’t feasible to hire a babysitter every single time you want to go out to eat—especially if it’s a family meal with her cousins or a special breakfast you want to share together. So, as parents of toddlers, how do we survive a meal in a restaurant?
It’s not always easy and the same tricks that work for me may not work for you and vice versa. Still, you never know until you try, so here are my favorite tips for dining in a restaurant with your toddler.
Invest in a LeapPad. No, I am not going to make you wait until the end of the article for the holy grail of eating in a restaurant with a toddler, and well, the answer is the LeapPad. I am here to help you and believe me when I tell you this clever and compact device has changed my life. You can buy game cartridges or you can download games, movies, songs, and so much more onto this kid-friendly tablet that, for us so far, has been pretty indestructible and a total game-changer. At a fair price point of between $50 and $100, I have found the LeapPad 2 more than worth its weight in gold. We have downloaded several episodes of Natalie’s favorite show, Paw Patrol, as well as a Minnie Mouse eBook, kid-friendly games, and one of the best surprises of all, the Letter Factory movie (get the DVD version here), which is 35 minutes long and has pretty much single-handedly taught Natalie her ABC’s. I’m not saying to let your child use this device all day long—not by any stretch. I know screen time should be limited. I am saying you should consider this for those occasional restaurant outings and getting minutes of time back for yourself throughout the day so you can, you know, take a shower without your two-year-old’s smushy-face pressed up against the glass as you try to remember what modesty feels like.
Tip: My sister-in-law advised us to invest in a set of kid-friendly headphones as well, making this toy more appropriate for a variety of settings.
Bring an entertaining companion. My cousin and I recently took Natalie to Friendly’s and had an extremely successful restaurant meal thanks to the LeapPad, crayons, and of course, her charismatic Uncle Kev. Having a new person to interact with besides the same-old same-old mom and dad can make the trip more fun for everyone!
Bring a new toy or a few new books. Give your little one something to entertain and distract while you shovel food into her mouth. Fill a purse or bag you no longer use with a few interesting items for your child to explore as you try to sit and enjoy your meal. Think of lots of toddler-safe keychains connected together, a book, a slinky, or other toys he or she may not have seen before now.
Bring your own snacks. Sure, some restaurants explicitly say no outside food, but are they really going to fight with you when their kitchen is taking two years and your kid is happily munching on a snack like homemade trail mix neatly concealed in a colorful snack cup? Probably not. In fact, they might appreciate it since they and their other customers would rather not listen to the wrath of little Johnny, who hasn’t had a meal since before his nap and his swim class. Toddlers can be little ticking time bombs when they are tired and hungry, so why chance it?
Choose only kid-friendly restaurants when you have your toddler in tow. These establishments make it easier to feel at ease as a parent and your kid likely will not be the loudest or the most disruptive. You may find kid-friendly restaurants have televisions on with appropriate programming, and they’ll usually try to seat you somewhere that is comfortable for you and your family to relax without having to worry too much. Some of these restaurants even offer kids-eat-free promotions when an adult meal is purchased. This typically happens on a certain day of the week, and some places like Perkins also have a character like Minnie Mouse or Spiderman in the lobby to greet all the guests on kids’ night.
Resort to bribery. If you know the restaurant gives out balloons to kids, use that to your advantage. Point out all the beautiful balloons and explain how good boys and girls usually get to take home a balloon after they do a good job eating their meals and behaving at the table. If your child’s meal comes with an ice cream sundae for dessert, don’t advertise that to your little one, but instead explain that if they do a good job eating and remain seated for the duration of the meal, that they can have ice cream for dessert.
Forget it and leave your toddler at home or dial in takeout instead. Sometimes trial and error still results in the same conclusion. If you feel this is the case for you, give it a few months and try again. Your sanity and your spouse’s sanity may be worth ordering takeout for a few more months.
In reading this, I realize that you may be opposed to bribery or electronics or even ice cream and that is okay – I’ve seen these tactics work wonders with my own child and others, so I’ll leave everyone to their own devices. If you have any helpful tips to share on dining in restaurants with toddlers, please share them in our comments below.