Taking your toddler out to eat at a restaurant for the first time can be a special kind of chaos. That’s not only because you’re freaked out they’ll be one fist of macaroni away from an Animal House style food fight. It’s also because the experience is tightly connected to your pathos about clinging to the last shred of your pre-child life (since you may not have been to a movie or concert in 16 months).
While you’re never ever (ever) going to get that old life back, you’re still going to try. But eating at a restaurant with a toddler doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In fact, it can be downright okay with a few good tips.
Pick The Place
Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to always choose your local family-dining chain. Yes, a good hash-house does hand out crayons and kid’s menus with the ease of a dude flinging stripclub fliers on the Vegas strip. However, they might not always sling the quality of grub that you want to enjoy, or expose your kid to.
Former New York Times food critic Sam Sifton made it a habit of eating out with his kids. He notes that aiming towards more upscale joints offers you an opportunity to school your future gourmand on manners while opening them up to new favorites. Sifton also says that while many classy restaurants are unlikely to have a kid’s menu, they will almost always have something your kid will dig. He recommends looking at:
- Bistros & Brasseries: For paper covered tables that are already primed to accept some crayon art.
- Red Sauce Family Italian: The food is familiar but the setting may require a bit more patience.
- Farm To Table: The food looks more like the actual stuff they find in their farm-centric kid-books.
- Steak Houses: For simple fare, but skip the ones that are too big on cigar and cognac.
Whatever you do, make sure you put in some research time. You don’t want to roll in only to get some crazy side-eye for the duration of your meal.
Prepare The Kid (And Yourself)
Yes, your toddler has a limited grasp on language, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be talking to them about expectations. Tell them where you are going and the behavior you expect to see. Then keep telling them on the way. Also before you walk through the door, and then when you sit down.
Make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure by taking your kid out when they should be napping, or if they are showing signs of fatigue. Nothing will ruin a good time faster than a tired toddler. Sudden explosive diarrhea is a close second.
Also, get your busy bag game working. For a restaurant, you’re going to want to go with softer toys that won’t roll away. Otherwise, you’ll be retrieving that truck from the nastiness under the table the whole time. Also consider books and anything that’s quiet. If you have a few toys that meet these criteria that your kid hasn’t seen in awhile, even better.
At The Restaurant
When you come into the restaurant with your toddler, the following steps should ensure the smoothest experience possible. Your goal is not so much enjoyment as it is disaster mitigation.
- Go when the restaurant is minimally busy. That brunch spot is nice but when packed with hungover hipsters at 10 AM, you’ll be public enemies numbers 1, 2, and almost 2-years old.
- Pick a booth if possible. Because you’re a natural road block and kid corraler.
- Remove any non-essential crap immediately. This includes any promotional menus, condiment trays, condiments, etc.
- Commandeer all silverware unless you like the sound of banging and an ever-present panic of lost eyeballs.
- Order quickly and stick to mains. Appetizers are just going to slow everything down and could render your kid uninterested by the time the food arrives.
- Ask the server to bring the check and to-go boxes with the food. You don’t want to wait for these while your kid is slowly melting down.
- Distract and engage to keep your kid from mischief. Considering you’re in a new place, play a little eye-spy and talk about what’s happening in the restaurant. Bust into the busy bag as a last resort.
- When food and check arrive, pay immediately before you dig in.
- Cut the kid’s food and keep all drinks and plates far away.
- Be prepared to leave if things go sideways, like a half-chewed chicken finger flung across your bow.
- Complete a quick tidy before you leave if you ever want your server to look at you without malice again.
- Tip more than 20 percent. Because if your special requests have been met with kindness and your kid chaos tolerated, it’s the good thing to do.
When you’re out the door with a box in hand containing the meal you barely touched, you will feel like you have been sucked through a jet turbine. But you will have also done something incredibly beneficial for your kid. Not only are you giving them a chance to prove themselves in a social setting, but you’re also giving them a novel experience. Yes, it’s nothing like the halcyon days of your courtship. But it is its own sweet experience that you wouldn’t trade for anything.