Back in the dreamy pre-baby days, my husband and I enjoyed countless meals out. We loved to sit for hours – dawdling over dim sum, lingering over linguini. Then, along came baby. When my son, Bryce, was born, we feared that we’d never get back to our favorite restaurants. Fortunately, we soon found that with a little adjustment to our expectations (there’s no more lingering for us these days!) And a few useful tips, we could still enjoy dining out, even with a toddler in tow:
1 Do your research. For your own peace of mind, make sure your wee charges will be welcomed at the restaurant. "I find it really helpful to call first," says April Watkins-Doeg of Medford, Massachusetts, mom to 22-month-old Harlan. "If you’re unsure, you can usually judge by the person’s reaction on the phone whether they’re kid-friendly or not."
Any restaurant with a kid’s menu will obviously be happy to accommodate your child, but don’t discount restaurants that don’t happen to offer one. Simply order a smaller entrée or appetizer for your child, or ask for a small plate and share your meal with him.
2 The noisier, the better. Remember, what makes a good dining experience pre-baby isn’t necessarily what suits your child best. Instead of heading for a place with a quiet, subdued atmosphere, you may find that you feel more comfortable (and your baby may even sleep) somewhere with a constant din.
3 Timing is everything. Keep your child’s schedule in mind and plan meals out for when she is most likely to be in a good mood. Dine at times when restaurants are less crowded and you won’t have to wait.
4 Express your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask the host or hostess to seat you where it will be most convenient for your family. "I always ask for a table in the back," says mom Vanessa Peterson on dining out with her infant daughter, "I say, ‘I don’t want her to disturb other diners if she’s fussy’ and they usually put us as far away as possible." Ask for a booth, a table against the wall, whatever makes you feel comfortable.
5 Know your child. Some parents swear by ordering their children’s meals as early as possible (we usually order my son’s meal with our drinks), but others prefer that their child be engaged with eating his food when their own meal arrives. What will work best for your family? Experiment a little and you’ll soon find out.
6 Be prepared. Bring a variety of soft, quiet toys, a small book or two, and some of your child’s favorite snacks. When his boys were small, Stephen Kendall had an entertainment plan at the ready."We had a bag full of plain paper tablets in different sizes and colors, along with colored pencils, pens and stickers," says Kendall. "We kept it on the top shelf of a closet and only got it down when we went out to dinner, so it became a special treat. The boys couldn’t wait to draw and play hangman or tic-tac-toe. We got so many compliments on how well-behaved our kids were, and it was so easy!" Your smartphone can also serve as a good distraction. If you've pre-loaded it with some toddler-friendly games or cartoons, it can help keep them distracted until the food arrives.
"My 2-year-old brings her own backpack that she packs herself," says Janee Tichy of Reading. "I always make sure there’s a coloring book and crayons in it."
And with the littlest ones, don’t forget to wear something you can comfortably nurse in, or to pack a spare (already prepared) bottle.
7 Don’t sweat the small stuff. The world won’t end if your toddler has tortilla chips and ice cream for dinner just this once. If it makes for a more pleasant experience, relax your normal expectations a bit. There’s plenty of time for veggies at home.
8 Acquire selective tunnel vision. Afraid of nasty looks or comments from your fellow restaurant patrons who don’t have children? Focus on your family and you won’t even see them. "Wear thick skin and ignore any glares from other diners," suggests Peterson.
9 Leave only footprints … and a big tip. When it’s time to go, cleaning up the worst of any mess your little angel has made will help ensure that your favorite restaurants continue to welcome little ones. If your server has been prompt and attentive, be sure to tip accordingly.
10 Relax and enjoy yourself. Remember, dining out should be a pleasant experience for you and your family. You’re out on the town, with the most important people in your world!
Updated August 2012