8 Rules for Dining Out with Toddlers

Let’s be honest: eating in restaurants with children under five is awful. But you know what else is awful? Cooking dinner after you’ve had a terrible day at work/wrangling the kids/ life in general. It’s always a choice between the lesser of two evils, but really isn’t that basically all parenting is?

Some days the dinner out is the winner (loser?). How do you ensure survival? The odds are already in your favor if, like in our family, dinner time is 5:15 p.m., sharp. The only people in restaurants at that hour are old people who can’t hear and will think your children are adorable. Mainly because they can’t hear. Beyond the normal absurdly early dinner hour, here are 8 tips, straight from the trenches, to help stack the deck in your favor:

1. Don’t go anywhere that takes longer than an hour. That’s start to finish and includes waiting time. I promise, even an extraordinarily well-behaved child can’t be still and quiet longer than an hour. Don’t set yourself up for failure before you get started.

2. Do not go anywhere that you have to wait more than 10 minutes for a table. See above. You have one hour. Do not waste more than 10% waiting. This rule can be fudged a little if it’s early and you can wait outside. But still, don’t stretch it more than 20 minutes.

3. Bring snacks. Preferably non-messy ones. Do not worry about ruining your child’s appetite. Worry about keeping him quiet and agreeable. One dinner made up entirely of yogurt melts and goldfish crackers won’t ruin him forever. This is especially important for those rare occasions when you cannot adhere to rules one and two.

4. Order your kid’s food with the drinks. Especially if he’s super hungry, it’s later than normal dinner time or you have a slow eater.

5. Be prepared to get your meal to go. Sometimes disaster strikes. An epic meltdown, an obstinate, refuses-to-listen child … these things happen. Toddlers have bad days, just like everyone else. If it happens at home, you can ignore it and let them tire themselves out. If it happens in a restaurant, you ask for your food to go and the check. You get out of there as quickly as possible.

6. Do not allow your child to run around, play with the blinds, jump, yell, climb on the booth or otherwise bother other people. Even at family restaurants. If your child starts doing this, ask him to stop. If you can’t get him to stop, see number 5.

7. Tip well. Especially if your kids make a mess, you have to concoct a special order for a picky palate or your server goes out of his/her way to be accommodating. Note: 20 percent should be your baseline. Tipping “well” is 25% and up, in this instance.

8. Be considerate. This sums up all the previous rules. Be considerate of your child, and don’t ask him to wait 45 minutes to eat an hour later than usual while waiting quietly with no snacks or distractions. That’s a recipe for disaster.

But also be considerate of your fellow diners. Yes, some people in this world are just looking to be offended by something; they’re not your concern. But if the whole restaurant is giving you side eye, maybe things aren’t going as well as you thought and you need to redirect or pack it in. I know how I can tune out annoying behaviors to the point where they are background noise. This is a necessary survival skill for parenting, but your fellow patrons are likely lacking it. Bear that in mind.

And if all else fails, go for Mexican food. It’s almost always lightning fast, there are free chips and salsa and margaritas make everyone a little more forgiving. Happy dining!

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One thought on “8 Rules for Dining Out with Toddlers

  1. Rule 9. Turn the wayward child over to Gran or Nana who don’t mind if their food gets cold while they are distracting said child so you can enjoy dinner. They’re used to cold food — after all, they are mothers too.

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