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How to Eat Out with Young Kids — Without Losing Your Mind

Is it worth the risk to eat out with young kids? Or, to paraphrase the parenting wisdom of Dirty Harry: “Do you feel lucky?” 

Well, do ya, punk? Are you willing to bet the evening on this roll of the dice. Betting on your toddler’s self-control is bound to end poorly:

  • You, weeping from the oppressive judgment you feel radiating from everyone else in the restaurant. (Real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. You feel it.)
  • Your husband, frustrated and already waiting in the car.
  • Someone’s toddler child (read: yours), throwing a fantastic public temper tantrum.

I know it’s tempting to say, “Screw it, we’re not eating out until you’re 11,” but that’s not a good idea. Your child needs to learn how to behave in social situations like this.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather practice these things NOW, instead of at the Rehearsal Dinner for your brother’s wedding? With all the family watching?

Trust me. NOW IS BETTER.

How to Eat Out With Young Kids

  1. Practice makes perfect.
  2. Plan ahead. Just a little goes a LONG way towards a peaceful meal.
  3. Timing matters.
  4. Be prepared with a bag of tricks and secrets.
  5. Reward the kids for an awesome job done!

Eat Out with Young Kids:
Practice Makes Perfect

Here’s the thing about your young children: They are completely self-centered. 

You realize that a restaurant is not the same as your dining room, but they don’t…at least until you deliberately take time to talk about how the two are different.

Make Believe in the Dining Room

Time to break out the play food! Sitting at the table, let your little one pretend to order something from you, the waitress. Show her how to make eye contact and smile, as well as saying please and thank-you.

After you’ve done this a few times, switch places. Now YOU give the order and let her pretend to be the waitress!

Sing Inside & Outside Songs

Teach your child the difference between inside and outside voices. Sing a silly song together (these were a favorite at my house). At first sing the song softly inside the house…then step outside and sing the song as LOUD AS THEY CAN outside.

Play the “Should I” Game

Role play different situations with your little one, so they can start to visualize which behaviors are acceptable in a restaurant and which aren’t. Here are some examples…

  • Should I…use my fork? YES! Should I use a shovel? NO! 
  • Should I…put the food in my ear? NO! Should I throw my food at my sister? NO! Should I scoop the food in my mouth? YES!
  • Should I…yell and scream at the restaurant? NO! Should I say please and thank you? YES!

Then let them come up with their own “Should I?” questions.

Go Over the Dining Rules

As you are eating meals as a family at the table, talk over the Dining Rules. I recommend posting them somewhere and letting your child check them off during family meals, to earn dessert! Here are some suggestions…

  • We stay in our seat.
  • We use our inside voices.
  • We do not throw food.
  • We use our utensils.

It’s up to you if you want to include eating rules as well. If you have a picky eater, read through this article. It will really help!

Eat Out With Young Kids:
Do a Little Research

Not all restaurants are suitable for all seasons of life. Now is probably not the time to take your toddler to a $60/plate sushi restaurant, where people are paying more for the ambiance and will be less forgiving of smaller humaniods running around.

I recommend making a list of a few restaurants that you enjoy, and then doing a little research on how “kid-friendly” they are. Figure out…

  1. Do they have a kid’s menu? Will your kids actually eat the food listed on the kid’s menu?
  2. How fast is the service? The faster the service, the fewer distractions you’ll have to bring with you.
  3. What days do kids eat free? Why not save some bucks?
  4. How many televisions are around? The more TVs present, the harder it will be to actually get your distracted eater to EAT, and you may end up wasting money and effort when they tell you they’re hungry 5 minutes after you get home.
  5. Do they have corner booths? Trying to sit on the side, somewhere NOT in the middle of the room, will help you feel less like you’re on stage, with everyone watching your parenting techniques.
  6. Will they let you make a reservation? The less time you have to wait, the less laps around the building your toddler has to take. OpenTable is a great app to help with this!

Eat Out With Young Kids:
Timing Matters

Don’t walk in at 6pm, spend 1 hour waiting in the foyer, order, wait another 15 minutes for the food, and then be surprised that your kids are hangry little terrors.

Work your timing backwards: If your kids are used to eating dinner at 6:00pm, you’ll need to try to get an order in by 5:45, which means you may need to plan on arriving at 5:15 to get seated.

Naps Make a Huge Difference

An overtired toddler is going to struggle during the dinner hour, no matter where you’re eating, home or otherwise. So be sure to make sure you’ve got a good Nap Routine going.

A child that’s missed his Waketime Window and is over tired will be a LOT harder to soothe and fall asleep. His brain has stopped making melatonin and is now making coritsol (the stress hormone). This will make him unpredictable, cranky, and an all-around jerk in public. (Just being honest.)

If your baby/toddler is only an occasional napper, I would encourage you to spend $20 and watch my Napping Know-How Webinar, using the worksheets to create an effective Nap Plan. It’s 60 minutes of professional techniques and tricks I’ve used in the past 5 years as a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

Or, if naps are usually a DISASTER, you may need an individual Napping Session, so we can talk back and forth about your specific child and create a custom plan for you to use in getting those naps back on track.

Eat Out With Young Kids:
Be Prepared

You’ve practiced. You’ve researched. The time has arrived and you’ve pulled into the parking spot. Time to get out?

NOPITY NOPE.

Before everyone spills out of the car and take over the restaurant, you’ll need to go over the ground rules. 

Set the Expectations

To be clear, is to be kind. That’s one of my favorite all time quotes. Help your child understand what’s expected of him before you pull open those double doors.

  • Walk your child through the future: “We’re going to go inside and you’re going hold Dad’s hand. Then we’ll sit down nicely and use our inside voices while we decide what we want to eat.” 
  • Remind your child about how you expect him to act: “Aiden, if you get out of your high chair or start screaming, Dad will take you to the car until you’re ready to have self control and try again.”
  • Give him something to look forward to: “Mommy has a special bag here to share some activities with you, as long as we follow the Dining Rules. Are you ready to try?”
  • Hint at a larger reward: “If you can show what a big girl you are at the restaurant today, when we get home we will…{add a family reward like playing a short game, reading a book, etc.}.”

Stick to Your Boundaries

If you say he’s going to have to go to the car and sit until he calms down, then you better make sure you take him to the car if he throws a fit! Yes, it’s going to be more work, but better to do this now, than suffer complete embarrassment in four years when he’s throwing fits and everyone in the world knows he should know better. 

You do have an emergency backup plan. If all else fails, and the dinner is a huge chaotic mess, you can always take the food home to go.

That’s your nuclear button. Your Get Out of Jail Free card. Tuck that in the back of your skull, and let it soothe you. If the worst happens, you can just leave.

Bring Your Bag of Tricks and Secrets

Your toddler is going to be fascinated at the contents of your secret bag. Pick up a cheap sack bags like this one, and fill it with helpful eating out tools, toys, and surprises. This way you always have a bag ready to go when the Dining Out Bug bites you. 

As your child exhibits good behaviors at the table, let him reach inside and grab ONE item to explore, without looking at it first. Here are a few suggestions on what to place inside. (Trust me, anything is exciting when you’re three and pulling things out of a “Bag of Tricks and Secret.” Even a high chair germ cover!)

Helpful Tools for When You
Eat Out with Young Kids

1. Large Sleeved Bib | 2. Food Teether
3. Sippy Cup Lids | 4. High Chair Germ Cover
5. pipSquigz Toy | 6. Egg Crayons
7. I Spy Everything Book | 8. SippyPal Cord
9. Flexible Building Sticks | 10. Disposable Placement

Eat Out With Young Kids and
Teach Them Social Skills

I know sometimes it feels easier to just be a hermit and never take your kids out into public, where their naturally childish behavior can’t make you look like a complete idiot.

But that’s not good for them. 

You need to eat out with young kids. They need to learn how to look at people in the eye and order with a smile on their face. (Even if they are just repeating what you say.)

They need to learn how to use self-control in public, to be thoughtful of the people around them, and the art of kindness.

And if that means you just have to skip cooking dinner and let someone else do the cleaning up (with a good tip of course!), well then, I guess that’s just a sacrifice you’ll have to make. 

The things we do for our kids…

🙂

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