As a mom to five, I have had a lot of experience taking small children to restaurants. I know many parents who are afraid to take their children when they have passed the infant stage and moved into toddler stage. With three children under six, I assure you it can be done without ruining your meal. The best method is to have a plan before you ever leave home, ensure you come prepared and try to make sure your little one is well-rested.
Here are some tips to keep your toddler entertained at restaurants.
Bring Entertainment Activities
While some restaurants will offer activities for children, it’s better to come prepared. You can bring small table-sized games, coloring books, drawing pads, dry erase boards or writing slates that wipe clean for reuse. Anything small, clean and easy to carry with you and sit at the table with will work. Carry a tote bag or allow your child to bring the tote into the restaurant with her and enjoy activities brought from home. Some children also like bringing a comfort item like a favorite doll or stuffed animal. Just make sure you don’t leave it at the restaurant!
Play Table Games
You can also play games with your toddler at the table. This allows you quality time together while also keeping your child occupied. Word games, rhyming games and even Tic-Tac-Toe are great ideas that can be done from seated at the table.
Choose Family-Friendly Restaurants
If you want the upper hand on keeping your toddler entertained at a restaurant, try to pick family friendly venues whenever possible. This doesn’t mean every meal has to be at Chuck-E-Cheese. There are many local and chain family restaurants who cater to children and their families. These places usually have better accommodations for bathrooms (changing tables), seating (booster seats), child menus and more.
Order Your Child’s Meal with Your Drinks
Some parents like to order their child’s meal with the drinks so it comes out faster and your child can go ahead and eat. Since many children take longer to eat their meals anyway, they will still be working on it when you get your plates. Then you only have a short time to entertain your toddler while you wait for food to arrive. If you prefer, you can bring some small finger foods (such as Cheerios or Goldfish crackers) and allow your toddler a small portion of these while waiting for the meals to arrive. Be careful if your toddler is ordering a restaurant meal so you don’t overfeed before the real food arrives.
Build a Bag of Restaurant Only Toys
We create a bag of “special” restaurant-only toys for all small children. They are kind of like goodie bags with quiet, hand-sized toys and items to keep them occupied at the table. All the toys go back into the bag before we leave and we don’t let them play with them at home so they don’t get bored with these items. This makes it extra special when we go out somewhere and pull out the bag. The kids get excited for it and it adds to the experience of family eating out.
Use This Time for Learning
Read a book, talk about the colors of the items on the table, or do math quizzes (ie. “How many fingers am I holding up?”) to keep your young one’s mind occupied at the table. Younger children seem to have short attention spans but this is because they are constantly thinking, observing and learning. When you keep their mind occupied, they will be less hyper and disruptive at the table and in public. This is also a great opportunity just to talk with your child. Most toddlers love to tell stories and if given the chance, they will talk your ear off. Life gets busy and waiting for dinner is a great time to slow down and just listen to what he has to say.
Teach Table Manners
Eating out at a restaurant is a great opportunity to teach or enforce table manners. We spend time before the food comes telling our children about the table setup, different utensils, how to politely ask for something from your server, what to do if you don’t like something on your plate and other table manners that they will use for the rest of their lives.
iPhone/iPad with Learning Apps
I don’t usually recommend placing toddlers in front of electronics to keep them happy but there are some great educational apps available today for toddlers and it makes a great back-up plan if your food runs late and your child has grown tired of the other methods listed here. It’s also good for when your child has finished her food but adults are still enjoying the meal. It even makes a good “reward” for encouraging your child to finish her food. After she eats, set her up with her favorite learning game (and some earphones) and the adults can enjoy the post-dinner chit-chat.
Finally, have a plan for discipline before you go to the restaurant. Keeping boredom at bay will prevent most incidents but even the best child will test his boundaries from time to time. Restaurants can be strange, loud and busy, which is often overwhelming to a young child. This over-stimulation can cause behavior issues or acting out. What is your plan of action when you do encounter a problem in a restaurant? If your child screams, throws food, stomps her foot or refuses to sit still at the table, you want to have a plan of action already in place so you’re not put on the spot by a toddler temper tantrum. My family uses “time-outs” on the benches outside the restaurant or at the front of the restaurant when they are available.
Do you have any tips for keeping your toddler entertained while at the restaurant? We want to hear your tips!