3 Secrets to Survive Dining Out With Toddlers

Part 3 of the Feeding Toddlers Series

Dining Out

One Friday I picked up my children from daycare, and for whatever reason I was feeling a larger than usual amount of Mom guilt.  Guilty about how many hours a week I spend away from them.  Guilty that the evening loomed over me, the cooking and cleaning and caring of littles by myself with little energy left to give them.  Ladies, no good decision was ever born of Mom Guilt. But I did not phone a friend or take a deep breath or whatever it is your supposed to do when you’re feeling impulsive.  My husband was at work and, mired in guilt, I decided in the parking lot that we were not going home.

“Guess where we’re going boys?”

“The diner!!!” they yell from their carseats.

Huge smiles plastered on their faces. I made them smile! Look at the great Mom I am! Oh, the naivety. I had nothing with me except their school bags and a clearly damaged ability to make good choices. If you’ve ever dined with a 2 and 5 year old boy, one with ADHD, then maybe you have an idea of what I was getting myself into.  The food took its time coming out, the portions were too big, the table too small, the crayons too broken. They both need to use the bathroom. The older one goes into the men’s bathroom but isn’t comfortable going poop in there so he just goes pee, then finds me in the women’s bathroom, and finishes the job. The 2 year old inhaled his first cup of chocolate milk but then spilled most of the next.  The well-meaning waitress provided a third cup, which was drank almost as quickly as the first.  I’m not able to pace this marathon of milk because the older one is playing with the knives and trying to sit with the people in another booth. By the time my food came out they’ve declared their mac and cheese is ‘gross’ and are asking for dessert. Thats when the 2 year old starts to dry heave. I look around wildly and see a partially empty pasta bowl at the table next to me.  I grab it but too late – the little guy stands up and adds a very full belly of vomit to the moat of soggy chocolate milk carpet that we were already standing in. The older boy is jumping around because he got throw up on his shoes, and I’m stripping the toddler down and wrapping him in his hoodie and little else so we can escape to the car before my whole world collapses.

What I failed to do this day was not only dial in on my own fatigue, but I did not put myself in the place of my kids.  Its late on a Friday for them. They’ve had to get through a long ‘work week’ too, and are not in any shape to behave well in a restaurant. I also will never, ever give a small child the equivalent of 20oz of chocolate milk in under 20minutes. Because he WILL vomit, and it will be epic.

In my post 3 Steps to Better Toddler Meals At Home, I went into detail how we improved dinner at our table.  Yet how does this translate when you’re dining out?

Large fork and spoon on a reflective table with text - Go Out! Three Secrets to Dining Out With Toddlers
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Always be prepared when dining out with toddlers.

Here I failed big time on that fateful Friday night.  Make sure you look at the menu before you get to your destination. Strategize with the other adult in attendance; my husband and I will take turns eating during the meal, and we’ll decide ahead of time who needs to eat first while the other wrangles the kids, and vise versa. Preparing a solid purse/backpack kit doesn’t mean over preparing, like those elaborate busy boxes I see on Pinterest (though I like them and probably have them pinned somewhere!)  I mean fill a gallon sized zip lock bag with some essentials and go.  Have an easy to pack & easy to rinse bib that fits even a 5 year old.  These Bumkins baby bibs have outlasted every single other bib I’ve ever bought.  Not by weeks, by YEARS.   I still have three of them, and my children are way too old to use a bib.  But that doesn’t stop me if we’re out.  I like their cute shirts.  I like my sanity.  Thus I like bibs.  Whether you’re at a backyard birthday BBQ or a fancy retirement party, there will be “kid’s menu” type food.  Think all your messy favorites; hot dogs and ketchup, mac and cheese, pasta with butter, ravioli with…I can’t even type it…red sauce.  None of these foods bode well for clothing. Please, don’t be shy about slapping on a bib.  And please don’t worry about how unhealthy the meal is.  Because you and I both know they aren’t eating any of it.  Which brings us to step 2…

Be a Table Lifeguard, and order carefully!

If you think the environment at home is chaotic, image how crazy eating out must be for a newly independent toddler?  Be patient and remember the whole thing is a sensory experience for them.

Image your role here as more of a  ‘table lifeguard’ than ‘exasperated Mom’.

Play offense, not defense.  Give the salt/pepper/sugar packets to the wait staff for immediate removal.  Ask for a small plate, small spoon, and extra napkins.  Ask for a steak knife, so you can cut that spaghetti into a million little spaghetti pieces.  Move 90% of the food served to your child onto that extra plate and provide only a small amount to start.  That way there aren’t any tears over spilt food, because you’ve got more on stand-by.  You are also more likely able to pack up left overs if the whole portion hasn’t be mashed and drooled on throughout the meal.

What to order now that you’ve set the stage?  The kids menu is a safe bet, but you don’t always have to order a kid’s meal.  My children rarely enjoy a hot dog or chicken nuggets from a restaurant.  (Plus, if I wanted them to have that, I would’ve stayed home!) How big is your meal likely to be? Probably too big, if you’re dining at an American restaurant.  So order something relatively plain and divy up the portion.  Chicken parmesan, roast turkey platter, a slice of veggie pizza.  Your child is going to ask to eat what you’re eating anyway, so plan on sharing from the beginning.  Another option is ordering an entree and splitting it between children if you’re out with more than one child.  It’ll end up being the same price as two kids meals and has a much higher likelihood of containing a vegetable.  Last option is for those of you going on a solo mission; you are the only adult and are potentially outnumbered.  Please order yourself something that will come out as quickly as your children’s meals – pancakes, an appetizer, soup, a sandwich.  You won’t necessarily eat it right away, but you also don’t want the kids to have completely finished their meals by the time yours shows up.  Unless they’re getting dessert, which buys you plenty of time to eat while they down some ice cream.  Everybody wins!

Be realistic with what your toddler can handle.

No one wants to be that family (ahem…my family) in a restaurant. Kids are yelling, or crying, or running, or dumping out all the salt.  Parents look frazzled.  It does not have to be this way.  We’ve had great meals out, and I’ve seen some seriously amazing Moms take out a gaggle of children and have it go super smooth.  How?  I think its because a) they’ve applied the rules above , b) they knew what they were getting into, and c) they practice.  Taking your toddler to Wendy’s at 3pm to practice sitting at a table will go a long way to improving your next real dining attempt.  Understanding your individual child can’t be understated.  Don’t expect a child who doesn’t sit well at home to sit well when out.  Some children can, and some cannot.  That can look like a child who needs to stand to eat, or who needs planned breaks outside every 15min. I’ve had to let go of what I think is supposed to happen, and I let my children guide me towards solutions. It can be a slippery slope, thinking one bad night out means they’ll never ‘get it’.   Now, if they eat a good amount of dinner, they will get to use the PBS app on my iPad.  When they were too young to watch a show I would play nursery rhymes on my phone.

Trust me, nothing breaks my heart for the future when I see a whole family out to eat, each nose down in a different device.  But rewarding a young child with a show after being a part of the meal cannot be a bad thing.

I have had to compromise my lofty ideals with what is right in front of me: two very good children who are out of patience with my adult expectations. And who have had too much milk to drink. Good luck out there brave parents!

If you like having simple routines and guidelines like these at your fingertips, then pre-order the Parent Like a Pro Ebook, available now for a discounted price until it’s release!

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