Restaurant dining is one of my very favorite pastimes. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I really enjoy pouring over online reviews and frequenting various dining establishments around town.
That is, of course, until I had a baby!
While I say this in jest, bringing a tiny human into the world really did cramp my going out to eat style for a while. Between the dreaded witching hour and facing exhaustion at the end of each day, leaving the house for a meal with the baby just sounded... hard. So, for the first year of her life, we didn’t get out as much as we once did.
Luckily, once my husband and I had a better handle on our daughter’s feeding and sleeping schedule, we slowly began venturing out with her at mealtime. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that dining with my young toddler was actually very fun. The experience certainly did not match my preconceived concerns.
This is why my top two fears about going out to eat with a toddler were ultimately debunked.
Fear #1: She Will Be Too Distracted to Eat
In reality, restaurants feed my toddler so I don’t have to, and we (parents) have an opportunity to model good behavior for our child.
I highly value structure and consistency in my parenting style. Typically, all of my daughter’s snacks and meals are consumed in her highchair at the dining room table. I was concerned that a restaurant environment would be overstimulating and distracting from the feeding task at hand.
As it turns out, she immensely enjoys the experience and actually eats better when we’re at a restaurant. Since we typically have dinner after she goes to bed at 7pm, eating together in the restaurant is a special occasion for her to see us modeling eating and good behavior at the table. Her new surroundings are so interesting that she stays content far longer than she does at home, and even throws her food less!
It’s also fun to see her preferences. For example, I never dreamed of giving her spicy food because I assumed she wouldn’t like it. However, she recently proved me wrong when she wanted to try dipping her chip into salsa on the table and loved it! I really do learn something new with her every day!
Fear #2: She Will Get Bored, Scream, and Bother Other Patrons
In reality, at a restaurant, she’s happy and entertained far longer than she would be at home.
Initially, I was concerned we would be “those people” with the screeching, food-throwing, tantrum-having kid. I completely understand that people pay hard-earned dollars to go out and have a good time, not to watch my child have a meltdown. It’s important to me that we avoid making a scene in public.
However, by picking child-friendly restaurants and designating one parent to take her outside if need be, we gave our daughter a chance to show us her best behavior in a restaurant. To this day, I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised I am at going out to eat with a toddler. To see her smiling, behaving well and positively interacting with others in public is heartwarming. I’ve observed a direct correlation between her good behavior and the fact that she is content and entertained. Who needs an iPad when the restaurant itself is a sensory playground just waiting to be explored? From people-watching, dancing to the music piping in from overhead, eating her meal, and waving to folks walking by, the entire experience is fascinating to her. Best of all, these activities keep her so busy that mom and dad can enjoy themselves for a long stretch of time too.
Tips if your toddler starts to lose it at the restaurant
On the rare occasion that she starts to lose her cool, we proactively address it by bringing a toy to keep her busy, use the restaurant’s coloring sheets and crayons, or briefly take her outside for a change in scenery. Whenever she makes a huge mess, for instance, we try to clean up most of the damage on our own with baby wipes, and then leave a bigger tip for the server.
Tip: If you have a particularly loud, strong-willed child, for instance, the louder the restaurant, the harder it will be for others to notice.
Does the idea of going out to eat with your toddler give you heartburn? I get it. That said, don’t let your fears make you miss out on an enjoyable experience with your child! Pick a kid-friendly, comfortable place, and see what happens. You’ll never know until you try!
Katie McCall is a lifestyle portrait photographer, content strategist, and producer based in San Antonio, Texas. When she isn’t behind a camera or laptop, she's exploring the world with her husband, darling one-year-old daughter and tiny pup. If you’d like, please follow their adventures on Instagram (@hersideproject)!