Infants and preschoolers are manageable in a restaurant much of the time. It's those toddler years that make moms shy away from restaurants the most. Your days of dining out don't have to end once your child hits 2, however. With the right attitude, and some proper preparation, you can take your little food critic right along with you.
Choose Kid-Friendly Restaurants
Dining out with your toddler might require an adjustment to your usual dining habits. "Go in knowing there is a 75 percent chance you won't have the dinner you expect, and cherish every minute until breakdown," recommends Amy Baxter, an Atlanta-based pediatrician. Trade in fine linen and candlelight for restaurants that boast that "kids eat free." Kid-friendly restaurants will be much more tolerant of extra noise and spills on the floor.
Consider the Timing
Proper timing can make the difference between a delightful lunch and a disastrous dinner. "Make reservations or take advantage of call-ahead seating," suggests pediatrician-powered site, HealthyChildren.org. Choose times when the restaurant is less likely to be crowded. You don't want to waste your toddler's patience on waiting for a table. Also, plan your meal for the time of day when your toddler is most likely to be at his best. A well-rested toddler who has already had lots of play time earlier will be better equipped to behave appropriately.
Begin preparing your toddler for his restaurant experience days in advance. Play "pretend restaurant." Practice ordering food and waiting for it to arrive. Show him how the chefs make the food and the waiters serve the food. "Practicing a behavior, like 'still as a statue' for a few seconds, and gradually increasing the time, can also help," suggests Baxter.
On the day of your restaurant outing, give your toddler a preview about the restaurant experience. Tell him what he can eat and remind him of the rules. Keep him informed about what is happening throughout your dining experience by saying, "The cooks are making our food right now. In a few minutes the waiter will bring it to us."
Bring Your Own Entertainment
Your toddler will handle this experience better if he has something to do while he waits for the food to arrive. "Bringing small, quiet things like coloring books could be helpful," says New York City's Lyss Stern, founder of luxury lifestyle company Divalyssious Moms. "It's OK to pack a few snacks as well, especially at a kid-friendly restaurant. A few cheerios or crackers can go a long way to keeping your tot quiet.
Address Behavior Issues
Reinforce good behavior with praise and prevent behavior problems before they start. Before he gets too squirmy, take him on a walk around the restaurant to give him a chance to stretch his legs. Take the long way to the bathroom or even go for a quick walk outside, and he'll be better equipped to sit still during the meal.
If your child starts screaming or throwing a tantrum, remove him from the restaurant. "You can do a time-out outdoors, but if the screaming starts again, leave," says Baxter. "Let them know that bad behavior has consequences, even at a young age," she adds.
Remain flexible and keep a sense of humor when taking your toddler to a restaurant. Expect that milk will get spilled and food will land on the floor. Be prepared to pack your meal to go, if necessary, and try again another day. "Experience is key. Keep going out until it doesn't become some big, special ordeal that makes you feel like going crazy," notes Stern.