Since my son was about a month old, we regularly went out to dinner with him. I used to love the change of scenery about once a week. But as our son got more mobile, our dining experiences got less enjoyable. Now that he can run and climb everywhere, it’s all he wants to do all day and he can’t sit still for very long. He can sit in a high chair for 40 minutes max, if we’re really lucky.
I decided to poll as many parents as possible for their tips and tricks when dining out with a toddler, especially for dinner. I received about 100 responses and I’ve tried many of the tips and tricks recommended. Most parents said 18 months to 3 years old is the most challenging for trying to keep a kid still. I’m hopeful that one day I can take my son out again to a fancy, multiple course dinner. In the meantime, I’m sharing my favorite suggestions that work well for us.
Lower your expectations. As my Mom always said “hope for the best and plan for the worst”. In the case of dining with a toddler, expect the worst and plan for the worst. Fancy, quiet restaurants and more than two course meals should be avoided like the plague. Be prepared for jumping up from the table at a moments notice.
Choose a restaurant and what you want to order in advance. We look for noisy, family-friendly restaurants with high chairs. Bonus points if they have tables available outside because my son is happiest outdoors. Dinner is the most relaxing and successful if we select a spot and what we’d like to order in advance. For example we love the Junction Diner, which we recently discovered in Forest Park Illinois. This diner serves food quickly and it’s delivered to your seat via a mini train set! And they have plenty toys for kids to play with if they can’t sit still.
Go to dinner early. Since my husband is European, we used to go out to dinner at 8 p.m. Because this is now my son’s bedtime, it’s best if we go out to eat by 6 p.m. Then we have time to get home and get my son ready for bed before he has a meltdown. Many other parents tell me they go out to dinner at 5 p.m. Unfortunately when we visit family in Europe, most restaurants don’t open until 7 p.m. So we just have to take turns eating and running outside with our toddler.
Bring snacks and toys. My son loves to eat and gets very grumpy when he’s hungry, I can’t blame him. I always bring a few snacks to keep him happy until dinner arrives at our table. And, despite my efforts to deter him, he loves cars. I find it best to keep a few toy cars in the diaper bag to entertain him when needed. Bring whatever toys and snacks your child loves.
Be ready to get up at any time. This one is self-explanatory. If there’s a diaper you need to change or tantrum that needs to be avoided, it’s good to be ready to jump up from your seat. We do our best not to annoy the other restaurant guests with a screaming nor running child. And in order to make all of this happen, I never wear heels and often avoid wearing a dress.