Family life

How to take toddlers to a restaurant without it sucking

Nothing wrong with whipping out your phone to get through a meal. But try these other clever ideas to up your odds for a successful and reasonably peaceful restaurant outing with the littles.

Bringing little kids to a restaurant can be a nightmare. They whine and fight at the table, don’t want to sit still, barely touch the food when it finally arrives, and beg for your phone constantly. Add in COVID risks, and it almost doesn’t seem worth it.

And yet, at this point in the pandemic, aren’t we all totally sick of our own home cooking? Not to mention mindful of supporting our local small businesses.

So the urge to attempt a meal out with little kids may persist.

“Having a good restaurant experience with kids isn’t impossible, but it’s going to vary from child to child, day to day, and meal to meal,” says Nita Sharda, a Winnipeg-based registered dietitian and mom to a baby and a three-year-old. 

Fortunately, there are ways to increase the chances of actually enjoying a dinner out with our little ones. Try these tips.

1. Manage your expectations

First off, you need to lower the bar on what a good experience might look like. We might want our children to not embarrass us in restaurants, but they aren’t going to stop being kids just because we take them out to eat.

“It’s important to distinguish between behaviour that is within your child’s control and behaviour that is not,” says Jillian Roberts, a Victoria-based child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Victoria. For example, getting upset and crying over food that has fallen on the floor or is too hot is normal, and they need to be comforted for that, not scolded or shushed. “When there is behaviour that is well within the child’s ability to control, like throwing food or banging the table, it’s important for parents to actively teach a child what is and is not appropriate, just like they would at home.”

In fact, that’s probably the point—every time we take our kids to a restaurant, we can look at it as a teaching experience. This doesn’t mean we want it to be a drag every time we eat out, though—and putting the work in should make consequent restaurant experiences better.

Even if your kids aren’t at the chair-tipping or baby food-flinging stage, how can you get them to stop squirming and eat? “My biggest suggestion for getting kids to stay in their seats and behave is to use that as an opportunity for dialogue and conversation,” says Sharda. “Not only does that encourage closeness between family members, but you’re helping them with language development and learning skills around being a social human.”

What’s key is making the conversation interesting at their level instead of expecting them to be engaged with boring adult conversations. “Think about your child in terms of their development, comprehension and vocabulary,” says Sharda. Her examples of good conversation starters:

  • “If you could have a superpower (or be an animal or invent something), what would it be?
  • Who is your favourite person and why?
  • What was the peak and pit of the day?”

Tailor it to your children, and make it fun.

2. Be early birds

Getting to a restaurant before the crowds is a really smart idea, especially during COVID. A 5 p.m. dinner may not be your idea of a night out (and you might get some pushback from your childless friend or opinionated mother-in-law), but it might up your chances of success, since waiting for a table for 20 minutes in a crowded vestibule with hangry kids is never a good way to start.

Really don’t want to eat dinner that early? Family breakfasts and brunches might work better with your wee ones’ bedtime and nap schedules, as these meals typically fall before a toddler or preschooler’s midday snooze.

3. Prepare for a swift exit

Knowing that there’s a good chance everything could fall apart before the last waffle fry has been eaten, be ready to jet out of there if necessary. Try to get the kids’ food on the table first, and as soon as they’re done eating, ask for the bill, even before the adults get their food.

Kids are all about instant gratification. You can peruse the menu online before you arrive, order their food as soon as you get to the restaurant, and always request takeout boxes and the bill when your mains arrive in case you need to dash.

4. Choose spaces that set you up for success

It might not be your first choice for a trendy meal out, but taking your kids only to places you know they’re going to dig is a wise plan. Check to see if restaurants in your municipality are limiting capacity, or working to keep distances between tables. Restaurants with vaccination policies, or outdoor patios (weather permitting), are also always going to be safer for kids too young to be vaccinated.

Novelty also helps. For example, consider a sushi restaurant where the food floats by on little boats down a mini lazy river, ready for choosing. It’s interactive, fun and you can eat quickly and get out. Consider trying restaurants where kids get to choose and see their food cooked in front of them, such as Korean restaurants that have grills on the table (if your kids are old enough not to injure themselves), pizza places with visible brick ovens, Japanese or Tibetan restos where patrons sit on floor cushions or Ethiopian places where everything is eaten with bread and using your fingers. Anything that is new and adventurous has a good chance of piquing their interest.

Of course, not all of us live in places that have these kinds of fabulous and fun options or have kids that’ll go for sushi. So, as a general rule, ask for a booth or a regular table instead of a high-top. And it may also be useful to designate ahead of time which parent, or which adult in attendance, will kid-wrangle or take a high-energy toddler for a run around the block (or just a trip to the washroom) to burn up energy when they’re getting antsy. 

5. Chillax on their food choices

All too often, kids’ menus serve up the same few things: pasta, chicken fingers, pizza and burgers—usually served with fries. Not the most nutritious fare—but perfect nutrition doesn’t really matter if your end goal is to have a good time and teach your kid some social skills in the process. Choosing a tried-and-true favourite like chicken fingers is A-OK in this situation.

“If you’re at a restaurant maybe once or twice a month, it’s also important for children to have normalized experiences with traditionally high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar food,” says Sharda. Of course, this isn’t an optimal everyday diet, but if it’s just every other week or so, don’t stress out or make a big deal of it. Let them enjoy their choices. “It’s important that parents don’t say things like, “We only eat this once a week,” or, “We don’t make this at home.” Do your best to just relax as a parent and give them that autonomy to choose what they want.”

If you eat out fairly often, Sharda advises setting some boundaries to encourage healthy eating and ensure their meals include a variety of food groups, and giving kids options from an approved-by-you list. “Kids’ menus don’t always offer the most nutritious food, so even exploring off the adult menu or the appetizer menu can be really helpful,” she says.

6. Consider bringing screens

Many parents feel strongly about this issue, but many parents have zero problem handing over an iPad while kids are waiting for their food or once kids have finished their meals. As much as possible, you want to make these moments comfortable for a child, and sitting for an hour to eat can be excruciating for them, so why not make it easier? For the love of all that is holy, though, use headphones. Forcing the rest of the restaurant to listen to Cocomelon, or a YouTuber droning on and on, is beyond rude. “There’s nothing wrong with giving kids something to do,” says Roberts. “Think through their needs and be prepared to meet them. It will help curtail undesirable behaviours.”

That said, some kids tend to implode whenever it’s time to put screens away, and it wouldn’t be realistic to expect them to react differently just because you are in public. “Don’t set yourselves up for a disaster. Bring a different kind of high-interest activity to the restaurant instead, like Lego mini-figures,” says Roberts.

Other non-screen activities that are ideal for keeping kids busy at a restaurant:

  • Mini-size Robert Munsch books. These teeny, square Munsch classics (about 8 cm by 8 cm) easily fit in your purse, or even inside your wallet.
  • Melissa and Doug reusable puffy sticker sets. Any stickers will do, but these reusable ones come with a fold-up background (a barnyard, a pirate’s island, a savannah or a jungle scene).
  • Play-Doh mini travel packs. Keep a can or two in your purse or diaper bag. The kids will play with it longer if you bring a cookie cutter or two, or let them use a butter knife to cut and play.
  • Polly-Pocket. This classic ‘90s toy from your childhood is back, and easy to take along.
  • Free Play Magnatab. This toy is mess-free and there are no small parts to get lost under the table.
  • Melissa & Doug Water Wow books. Mess-free colouring books are a parent favourite for restaurants, road trips and plane travel alike.

7. Don’t let others dictate your experience

Sometimes the way other people react to your misbehaving kids—or kids staring at phones and tablets like total screen zombies—can be enough to put you off ever wanting to eat out, but it shouldn’t.

Roberts says there are always going to be people who don’t understand that kids are just being kids, or even tune in to the fact that maybe your child has special needs. “It’s unfortunate that those people feel they need to say something, and it’s just completely inappropriate,” she says. It can also be hard not to respond by snapping at that busybody or feel pressure to loudly reprimand your kids more than you normally might (guilty).

In those situations, Roberts says we mustn’t let that person distract us from the important job of parenting and recommends using courtesy as a shield. “Say, ‘Thanks very much for your input but I’m OK, thank you,’ or, ‘I appreciate your concern and I’m doing the best that I can,’ and that will put them on the spot,” Roberts says. If you approach these restaurant adventures with realistic expectations and you’ve done a little bit of planning, you might even end up having fun and creating memories with your brood. “These are the magical days with your children,” says Sharda. “As difficult as it might be, we just have to find joy in that.” 

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