How to have a stress free dinner out with toddlers

We’ve all seen it - kids screaming, running around, throwing food, spilling drinks. Mom looks either exhausted or oblivious, with onlookers unable to take their eyes off the scene. With moods, behaviors, and decibels that are unpredictable, it’s hard to convince ourselves that it’s worth it. But eating out doesn’t need to be like this! With planning, flexibility, and a couple of surprises up your sleeve, dining out can be an enjoyable experience for everyone! 

Let me encourage you that training our children to eat out early will pay dividends in the long run. And if you’re worried about what others might think, or about disturbing others’ experience, try shifting your mindset to the training ground that it is. Often, fellow diners appreciate your efforts to teach young children manners and respect and are very forgiving when it comes to anything you might consider embarrassing. 

No one is expecting your toddler to act like a grown-up, so you don’t have to either. And that leads to my first tip. 

1. Set Your Expectations

This may seem like an unnecessary step, but if you take a few minutes to envision what you expect of your child while taking into consideration their developmental stage – you will go into the restaurant prepared with the right perspective that sets you all up for success.

For my husband and I, this looks like agreeing on what we do and don’t want. For example, in our family, we don’t want screens at the table when they're older, so we don’t allow screens at the table while they are younger. Keeping that in mind, we can plan ahead, knowing we won’t be able to lean on screens as a fallback. You might feel the same, or you might feel differently - and that’s okay! The important thing is to think intentionally about the goal. What do you want family dinners to look like down the road? And how can you start taking baby steps toward that vision now? 

2. Setting expectations for yourself is important, too.

The sooner you can grasp that you might not stay as long, you might eat a little faster than you’d like to, you will bend down to pick something up – more than once, and you will have conversations one snippet at a time, the better :) Talk with your partner about how you will handle situations as they arise. What do you do if there’s a meltdown? Will you take turns addressing needs? How long do you stick with it once things get dicey? What do you do if it’s just not working? That way as things unfold, or should I say unravel, you have a plan to follow instead of feeling panicked and chaotic. 

3. Practice at Home

The best thing you can do to prepare your children for dinners out is to practice the wanted dinner behavior at home. On regular weeknights, throw in a compliment here and there like “Wow! I love how you’re sitting on your bottom to eat your dinner! That’s great table manners!”. Pointing out what they’re doing well builds their confidence and motivates them to continue making those good choices. 

When this becomes a regular practice for your family, and you’ve used the language of things that might be important to you in a restaurant, the transition to a different table, in a different setting doesn’t seem so drastic. You can even role-play taking orders to practice using a big clear voice and please and thank yous when talking with the waiter. Kids love any chance they get to role-play! Bonus if you switch and let THEM be the waiter while you play! 

4. Communicate

If you were going to do something out of the ordinary, like afternoon tea downtown, you would want the inside scoop on the dos and dont’s, right? In the same way, we can be our kids’ coaches by preparing them for what’s coming. Remind them of the times you have role-played, or maybe they’ve seen a TV show at a restaurant setting (Hello Daniel Tiger!), or you can even draw a picture of what the setting might look like. Be sure to help them visualize what they might see, hear, smell, or touch in front of them - and what they are expected to do with all of it. Tell your kiddo what he CAN do, like “You can put your napkin on your lap” or “you can place your cup on the dot*”. This will keep a positive atmosphere more than “don’t wave your napkin around” or “don’t play with your cup”. Kids want to make good choices, but they need help learning what good choices are available to them.

*I like to put a sticker or a foam dot where I want their cup to stay when they’re not drinking from it. Don’t ask me why this works, just trust me that they love having a job to do by putting their cup back on the dot. It works! 

5. Come Prepared with Restaurant-Friendly Toys

Here are a few favorite restaurant-friendly toys. I highly recommend keeping them tucked away as special toys that are only brought out at restaurants. This keeps interest levels high! 

  • Brain Quest Q&A Cards - My all-time favorite. Anytime my parents pulled these out for us as kids we were super excited. These teacher-approved, age-appropriate cards give you structure to guide your child in learning and practicing word skills, or the freedom to explore the cards on their own. 
  • Busy Baby Silicone Placemat - The genius tag-along for babies that are sitting up and in the throwing-everything-on-the-floor stage. With this mat, you can anchor down their favorite toys, teethers, or utensils so that nothing touches the ground! 
  • Melissa and Doug Play Mats - Another brilliant creation, open up these placemat activity pads to draw, color, count, practice patterns and so much more! 
  • Doodle Board - For just $20 these hold their weight in gold when it comes to entertaining little ones. As they draw, rainbow colors are revealed and when they’re ready to start over, just a click of a button wipes the slate clean for a fresh start. The classic Etch-a-Sketch is always a drawing option, too. I love how compact this mini one is. 
  • Lacing/Threading Toys - These toys capture attention as kids use their creativity to thread the string through the holes making the caterpillar eat thru the apple - adorable. The best part is when kiddos play with this, they’re strengthening their fine motor skills without even knowing it! 
  • Poppers - need I say more? 
  • I Spy books, Search the Page books, or any books that capture your little one’s interest. The Indestructible series is great for babies that might want to munch on the pages. 
  • ABCs Flashcard Ring - Great for toddlers that have learned some/all of their sounds and letters. We like to pick a letter, say the sound a few times, and then look for something in the restaurant that starts with that same sound, A sounds scavenger hunt if you will. 
  • Pouch Puzzle - This 12-piece, extra-thick puzzle comes in a pouch that makes it easy to manage in a restaurant setting. They have several picture options for you to find one that will be exciting for your child as they fit the pieces together. 

When in doubt, remember simple games like I spy and hide-the-penny-under-the-sweetener-packets. Or set out the place setting and have your child close their eyes. Remove one item and then see if they can tell you what is missing. Then repeat. You can make a story together by having one person start with something like “There once was a bunny and a bear”, then the next person has to add on to the story. This one always creates lots of laughter which is the whole point of gathering around the table together. 

Whatever you decide to do or bring, try to remember that the reason you are doing this is to create connection between the people you love. Dish out as much grace and patience as you each need to foster the learning needed on this training ground. You’ve got this mama!