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How to Dine with a Toddler (Without Screens or Yelling)

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As the parents of toddlers everywhere recover from #dinergate, we are left to wonder when it will be OK to eat at restaurants again.

In case you missed the incident that divided a nation, some background: a restaurant owner yelled at a toddler who had been having a fit for an undetermined amount of time (reports differed and the child was unable to speak up for herself) at her dining establishment. The child's parents were upset and posted a complaint on Facebook. The restaurant owner responded and soon sparks were flying from both sides. I was appalled at how many people felt that children shouldn't be allowed to be children, especially not at restaurants. Given the amount of support the restaurant owner received, parents are left with a few options, which include: never eating in public until our children hit puberty, bring a fully charged iPad to restaurants and risk the judgment of other parents and non-parents.

I don't like any of these options, since eating out is one my favorite things (no cooking or clean up!). We dine out once or twice a week, so my partner and I are constantly improvising on ways to prevent toddler meltdowns in restaurants. We know of only one recorded incident when we had to bring out Daniel Tiger on the phone, but just for a brief minute.

1. Pick a child-tolerant restaurant

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I say tolerant, since it seems kids are just not welcome at many establishments these days. On one occasion, I kid you not, a restaurant told me they could not accommodate my infant stroller but that dogs could be on the patio. I live in Los Angeles, so at times it feels puppies are more welcome than babies in general. We have a list of go-to places where we dine out with kids.

We tend to check Yelp!, but if the reviews are not explicit enough, call ahead and ask if they have high chairs. Also any place that has lit candles in the middle of the table is usually a no-no.

2. Develop a strategy

Once you have selected your location, be strategic about the timing. There is only a short window. Get there not too close to nap time and also not too close to bedtime. You had children, so just accept that the spontaneous part of your life—dropping in to the latest "it" farm-to-table pop up—is now over.

3. Bring snacks

I know you are thinking, "We are going to a restaurant. Why would I bring food?" I hear you, but you never know how long the food will take to be ready. (If you followed No. 1, though, you have a good sense of how long.) Nonetheless, bring an apple, cheese stick or something to keep the child entertained while the food comes out. Ordering a kid-appealing appetizer can also buy you some extra time. Also, this is no time to obsess over what to order. Remember: get in and get out.

4. Do not order off the kids menu
My child is 2, so this might change. But since he always wants to eat off our plates, we just share our food with him. Some restaurants have kids menus that are filled with unhealthy foods, like mac 'n' cheese and chicken tenders. He gets more variety, and it's a thrill for him to pick food off our plates.

I know you are thinking, 'We are going to a restaurant. Why would I bring food?'
5. Bring your own utensils and sippy cup
This entertains them for a bit while you wait for food. When they start to reach out for your silverware, hand them their own stuff. You can also buy some time by giving them a wrapped straw. Watch them slowly peel it off and, yes, they will chew on it a bit. But it's OK, you can enjoy your pad thai in the meantime.

6. Get creative

Turn anything into a musical instrument, bang salt shakers together, turn bowls over and bang them as if they were drums. Sure everyone will stare, but only because they think you are an awesome parent who is teaching her child musicality. Bring your child's favorite toy, if it isn't something that can hurt someone if thrown. I bring a book and a car, he lets me know when he's over them. You can also bring a crayon and a notebook and watch your child scribble and draw letters. Or you can recite the letters to them. I know you are wondering how to eat while doing this impromptu alphabet lesson. You take turns with your dining companion, of course!

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7. Eat fast
And pay the bill while your partner pulls the kid out of the high chair. Tip generously, because your kid threw half of his food on the floor. Grab a napkin and pretend like you are going to clean it up. Look up and wait for someone from the staff to come tell you that it's OK, because, after all, he is only a baby. Have your kid wave bye or give the staff a high five.

That's it. You survived! High-five, Mama!

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