Out to eat with a toddler - crazy?

We've all had those proud parenting moments when your toddler throws a massive tantrum or has an epic meltdown in the middle of the restaurant and you end up leaving before you've had a chance to finish your meal. Never happened to you? If you have a toddler or a baby approaching toddler-hood, you may experience this. Good news, it is a season and this too shall pass...hopefully sooner rather than later. Why am I talking about this? Because it's happened not once, not twice, but several times to us in the last couple of months (we have an adorable, but busy, boy who turns three soon). Thought I'd share my tips - not because I'm an expert - but because I needed a refresher on how to survive this stage! AHHH!

Toddler truths

  1. Toddlers attention spans are extremely short - they usually max out at about 15-20 mins in a high chair.
  2. Toddlers easily tire and your window of opportunity to feed that little belly is short. Meal times generally fall just before nap or bedtime, so choose your timing wisely. Early dinners tend to be better than, say, a 12pm lunch before a 1pm naptime. Join the early birds and arrive at 5pm!
  3. Toddlers tend to like to graze rather than sit down for a big meal - goes back to their short attention span.

Is it impossible to go out during this stage? It may feel like it sometimes, and I may have recently said I wasn't leaving the house for the next six months, but it is possible and it is important to continue to attempt to go out. It's a great time to learn table manners, how to follow directions and a great time of family interaction and connection.

Pick a family friendly restaurant

Do they have a kid's menu? Check it for good, reasonably healthy options that you know your child will enjoy. High chairs? Coloring? Is the restaurant filled with other families - meaning they tolerate the increased noise and mess that comes during mealtimes with kids? We recently went out to eat at Boston Pizza and they are winners in my book for kids menus and activity books. Their current version is 3D. Pretty awesome in this Mom's book (see pictures below).

Know your order

Be prepared to order as quickly as possible. Toddlers are like little ticking time-bombs - their attention span is extremely short and you will run out of options to entertain him/her quickly. The sooner you can get your order in, the better chance of success. Don't order too much food, give them too many choices or introduce new foods. Order what you know they will like and eat.

Pack some finger foods/snacks

Cheerios, crackers, raisins, nuts, etc. A little something they can munch on helps to keep their attention and their blood sugar up! Remember, they usually graze, so this will help keep them entertained.

Pack a "survival kit"

Hot Wheels cars are great - they're small and you can easily set up a "road" with silverware, straws, menus, etc. We also love My Busy Books - they're popular character books that come with a bunch of little figurines to play with - as well as sticker books, which can keep them busy for quite a long time. Nursery rhymes and various I Spy-type games help too - here's a link to a site that has some great ideas. It also helps to travel with an early childhood educator (thanks Erin!) who comes up with imaginative games to entertain the toddler (I spy, Colored car spying and counting, etc). :)

Keep expectations low

Not to go into a dining experience with negative expectations, but just in case things get crazy (there will be a time, I promise), be ready and okay to just pick up your family, take your food to go, and head home. There's nothing wrong with throwing in the towel if things just can't be brought back into control. It's important to teach them about respect for other diners - leaving is one way of teaching this concept.

We were so confident about our refresher lesson in how to eat out with a toddler, we decided to take a couple of extra kids with us. :) As soon as this phase started up again for us, I remembered that it lasted several months, but it is temporary. They do grow out of it and the payoff of taking them out during this phase is that you will have a child who can behave well in a restaurant (most days). Lastly, a glass of Cabernet may be in order and help you all get through the meal and season. Bon appetit!