It’s easy to see why many parents of young children avoid restaurants and prefer to eat at home, where thrown food will hit only members of the immediate family. But sometimes it’s necessary — and even fun — to eat out. If you have a 2- to 4-year-old and you’re still uneasy about dining out, these suggestions will help:
Before you go
Pack a bag of tricks. Bring a variety of reliable amusements, including favorite books, games, and (quiet) toys. If you know you’ll need to fill an hour, overestimate and bring two hours’ worth of goodies.
If your child is especially energetic and restless, pack a couple of new, small toys that will hold his interest (at least until the food arrives). It’s also a good idea to throw in a few favorite snacks, in case the food is slow to arrive or not to your child’s liking (just because he loves the mac ‘n’ cheese at home doesn’t mean he’ll eat the restaurant version).
Pick the right restaurant. Choose a child-friendly restaurant, preferably one casual and loud enough to absorb any noise your family might make. Make a reservation if possible, so you don’t have to wait to be seated.
If you’re new to eating out with kids, consider working your way gradually up the food chain by practicing good behavior in a basic burger joint, where manners matter less to those around you. Buffets are great for families with small children — kids like the wide selection, and everyone is walking around, so no one minds (or even notices) you taking short forays with your preschooler.
Set some ground rules, and enforce them at home. Young children are creatures of habit. If you establish realistic, age-appropriate guidelines at home, you’re more likely to see your child following the rules when dining out.
Go early. Be among the first to arrive for the breakfast, lunch, or dinner hour and you’ll be seated and served more quickly. Quicker service means less “gap time” between ordering and food arrival or between courses — and less gap time means less time for your active preschooler to get rambunctious.
Treat eating out as a reward. To motivate your child to maintain some decorum in public, make eating out a special event where good behavior is not only expected but required.
Once you’re there
Order kid-friendly food. This is not the time to spring something new on your child. Stick with recognizable favorites — burgers, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese. Order from the kids’ menu, if there is one, or go with finger foods, like fries and chicken nuggets, that your child can dip into an assortment of accompaniments for added amusement.
Don’t dawdle. Ask your waiter if the kitchen can prepare your child’s dish quickly, or at least have him bring some bread or crackers your child can munch on while he waits for his meal.
Keep it moving. Don’t expect your 2- to 4-year-old to wait through the adults having a salad course and appetizer while she plays quietly or nibbles on croutons. As soon as you’re seated, order an appetizer you can share with your child, or skip the appetizers and go straight to the entrees, avoiding the gap between courses.
Reserve certain special foods or drinks for restaurants. Consider allowing your child to have something that’s rare or forbidden at home — dessert, for example, or a caffeine-free soda. The treat will not only occupy his attention but will reinforce the idea that going out is a special privilege.
Be considerate. The wait staff — who you may have been compelled to ask to rush the entrees, get more parmesan for the plain pasta, trade the ice cream dish for a more toddler-friendly one, or who knows what — will also have to pick up all those graham crackers that hit the floor. They’ll notice your efforts to minimize the extra service you’ll need, and they’ll notice any extra appreciation you show them. The next time you come in, this can easily translate into even better service.
Heading off behavior blowups
Have realistic expectations. Concede that eating out with a young child will never be like eating out with adults. It’s not realistic to expect a 2-year-old to sit still, conversing quietly, for an hour. Instead, think of the meal as an opportunity to be engaged with your children. This can mean playing games, talking, reading, and, most likely, at least a little walking around. It’s reasonable to expect a preschooler to be fairly well behaved (in other words, not running around and screaming) if he’s entertained.
Choose your battles carefully. A restaurant is not the place to get into an unnecessary confrontation with your child. Aspire to good basic behavior (staying fairly quiet and not disturbing other people) and reasonable manners, but let minor transgressions go rather than getting into a battle of wills that could spoil the whole evening.
Share the load. To make things go smoothly, both parents should be involved in meal management. If your child demands constant attention, take turns with your partner so one of you can eat while the other attends to your child.
Persevere. Even if you have a meal that ends with a bunch of overstuffed, untouched doggie bags, try again. Remember that as young children practice appropriate behavior, it becomes almost second nature, and your first few challenging meals will eventually yield a wonderful reward: your family enjoying a pleasant restaurant experience.