Eating out with Toddlers

Does your family eat meals together?

Long before we had kids I’d heard of a study stating successful high school student had family mealtimes. I don’t remember the details of the study, but the idea stuck with me. I know its hard. I’m right there with you. Whether it’s a toddler who won’t sit still or teenagers with a busy schedule, making a regular family meal time the priority requires intentionality.

Meal time, as a central element of family life, is a fading practice, but research shows it’s simply one of the most important things you can do for the long-term well-being of your children. Family meal time is worth fighting for. Let other things slide, but do whatever you can to make family meal time happen (plan simple meals, use paper plates, get carry out, or even head to a restaurant).

Some days getting a meal on the table can be a daunting task, but it’s something my family is committed to. So, when life gets busy we tend to eat out more often than othe time. We don’t have a toddler now, but I remember how eating out with a toddler in tow can complicate things. Here are my five best tips for enjoying a dinner out with your little ones.

Practice

When people tell me their child just won’t behave when they go out to eat, my first question is:  “Does she sit for meals at home?”lightstock_370809_medium_jeremy

The remedy starts at home, and it’s practice. If a child isn’t sitting and eating meals at home, it’s unreasonable to expect her to manage this at a restaurant. Having her sit in her high chair at home during meal times will help her understand this expectation more globally, including at restaurants.

Timing

Just like surviving the grovery store, timing is critical for making it through a dinner out. A tired toddler is almost certain to cause problems (you may want to skip the restaurant and opt for carry out). However, while a hungry toddler is a problem in most situations, it’s quite the opposite when you’re headed out to dinner. Make sure your little one is hungry.

If you know you’re going out later, try and limit snacks. If he’s been grazing all day there’s less chance he’ll sit pleasantly while you eat. As a rule of thumb, kids should have two to three hours between meals and snacks. Of course, there are times when you’re running a little later than planned or the food is taking longer than expected.  If your little angel is transforming into a little devil you’ve got to take action.  Bre prepared with a few small snacks. Nothing too filling, but just enough to tide him over until the meal’s ready. I’m a fan of things like fruit cups, applesauce pouches, and Cheerios.

Put snacks in a container like these snack cups and he’ll have to work a little harder for the snack, which means he’ll not eat very much before the food arrives. Also avoid letting your little on fill his belly with something else, like a cup of milk or juice, while you wait.

Finally, if possible, time your restaurant visit for a slow time of day to avoid over-stimulating your little one and having to wait too long.

Movement

Toddlers love to move.  They are not designed to sit for an hour straight.  Giving her a chance to burn off some of that energy while you wait or before you’re seated. Have her run up and down the sidewalk or let her walk while holding your hand rather than being carried as you go in. After you order your food take short walks to give her a break before she’ll have to sit still.

Finally, don’t forget the power of simple engagement. Talk about the different things you see and work on social skills by waving at people you see.

Positioning

The best place for a toddler to eat is in a high chair.

It might not seems like a big deal to let them wander the house or sit in a booth at a restaurant for some of their meals, but you may be creating up bad, hard to break, habits.

Also, children with low tone or weak muscles in their trunk have a harder time sitting in an adult chair that kids with stronger core muscles. These kids need the support provided by a high chair.  Here’s a great article regarding proper positioning during meals from an Occupational Therapist who specializes in toddler feeding.

Set the expectation that meals are eaten in the high chair and they never know the difference.  The same goes for eating out. Having the support of the high chair will get them in the correct position for eating and once you take them out the high chair. But, if you let them crawl around in the booth they’ll not easily go back to the high chair.

So, what if you’re having a hard time getting your child to stay in the high chair?

Go Bag

Prep a Go Bag that goes with you to a restaurant.  These are items your child does not see everyday and will seem new and exciting when you pull them out.  Get one item out at a time when you find your little one begins to wiggle and squirm.  Items I recommend for a restaurant Go Bag:

  1. Stickers – Get a package from Dollar Tree plus a small spiral notebook to put them on or this Melissa & Doug set .
  2. Play-Doh – Get  small cans to keep little hands busy at the table. The small container makes less mess and easy to toss if it hits the floor.  Check out my tips on Play-Doh use here and here.
  3. Color Wonder – These no mess markers are awesome.  You don’t have to worry about your kid coloring all over the table. They even have a set in a carrying case that would be easy to travel with.
  4. Board Books – I mentioned using books with lift the flaps in my Grocery Store Sanity post. The flaps keep busy hands busy. My favorites are: Discovery Farm – it’s cloth so easy to clean and light weight for travel, Learning Set of Four – the  small size makes  easy to travel, Little People Lift the Flap – there are several different themes to choose from. They have LOTS of flaps to keep kids busy.  I have never used the finger puppets that come with the ones on Amazon. They look adorable, but not sure if I would want to keep up with those at a restaurant.  You may want to save the puppets for home.
  5. Little animals or figures – You can find dinosaurs, zoo, farm, ocean animals in small tubes that are easy to take with you. They can line them up, pretend they are eating or drinking. Ask the server for an empty cup to put toys in and out of. This cute book, Dear Zoo comes with zoo animals – too cute!

Don’t be afraid of taking your kids out to eat.  Be prepared and have fun family time together.  And if all else fails go out to eat with the grandparents who are happy to entertain their perfect grandchildren while you enjoy a meal while it’s still hot!

What about you? How do you survive a dinner out with your toddler?

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