If you thought you turned heads on your nights out when you were young, single and fabulous, think again. Any parent who has ever disrupted a restaurant with a tantruming toddler knows there is nothing more likely to get attention—and judgment—than a massive mid-meal meltdown. But with a little preparation, you can revise your restaurant etiquette and eat out with ease.
Where and When to Go
- Timing is everything. Don't go at a popular time of day, when you know there will be a wait, advises Dr. Ari Brown, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and author of the Baby 411 series. "Children's—and adults'—behaviors get worse with hunger and impatience," he says. A hungry toddler is volatile at the best of times. But a hungry toddler that also needs to be quiet, sit still and be patient is a recipe for screaming and tears.
- Location, location, location. If you don't see any kids in the restaurant—and especially if there are no highchairs—this might not be the place to bring your little one. Brown suggests selecting a place that has good service and is child-friendly: "You are only asking for a disaster if you have a long wait until the meal is served or the staff is snooty because your kid drops his food on the floor."
What to Bring
- Favorite foods. To your tot, animal crackers and juice top any Michelin-star meal. Bring a selection of his favorites in case the kids' menu can't compete. It's good to start with an "appetizer" from your purse if there's a delay in the food's arrival, says Brown, and he suggests bringing a portable food grinder. "It's easy to share your food, but depending on the age of the child, the texture may need to be modified."
- Entertainment. Unless you want your kid to create his own amusement by regaling the restaurant with a rowdy rendition of the ABC song, bring something to amuse him while he waits. Depending on the age of your child, Brown suggests paper, crayons, playing cards, stacking cup and even sugar packets make for entertainment when you're desperate. However, don't resort to passing over your phone: "Part of the eating out experience are the social skills and communication skills that develop by sitting around a table with your family and participating," he says.
- Diapers and Wipes. Infants are unpredictable, but if there's one thing you can rely on, it's those ill-timed "code brown" moments. You probably haven't gotten through an uninterrupted meal at home since baby was born—it's almost as if your child has an in-built sensor, alerting him to the fact that mom finally has a chance to sit down—and that's not likely to change just because you're dining out. Don't discount the many other uses for wipes; there's nothing better to clean crayon from the table when your child unexpectedly unveils his "artwork."
Where to Sit
- At the end of a row. It was cute at first, but now your child won't stop staring at the adjoining table. Avoid awkward moments by asking to be seated at the end of a row of tables—and seat junior on the side without a neighbor.
- By the open kitchen. If you're lucky enough to visit a restaurant with an open kitchen, make the most of it. Ask to sit close by so your kid can watch the action.
- Close to kids. Other parents are more likely to understand if you need to take baby for a walk around the room, and for infants, watching the other children is often all the entertainment you'll need.
How to Handle a Meltdown
- Stay calm. Keep your cool if your child is crying. Otherwise, he'll sense your stress and the issue will escalate. Distract him with a toy, snack or game if you can. Don't raise your voice or get angry—you'll only prolong the situation and draw more attention to your table.
- Cool off. Don't disrupt the other diners' dinner. Step outside for a second if you suspect the meltdown is building, you can't distract your child or you simply need to give him a moment to calm down. If you know ahead of time that your tot won't wait patiently until the meal, get up and walk around or go outside before the food arrives.
Respecting Fellow Diners
- "Inside voices." Teach your child to use his "inside voice" or "restaurant voice" when you're dining out in public. Remember, this goes for parents too. If you're shouting at your child to quiet down, you're probably being more disruptive than he is.
- Know when to go. You have to know when to call it quits. Sometimes—despite your best efforts—your kid just can't keep it together. Box up your food to go and try again another time.
In the end, you know your child best. Try to plan your visit around his peak hours and consider your kid's capabilities. If you know there's just no way he'll make it through a meal at 8 p.m., go earlier or let him take a second nap before dinner. But even if you plan everything perfectly, it's no guarantee that everything will go smoothly. Prepare for the worst beforehand using our restaurant etiquette tips, and try not to worry; you may be pleasantly surprised when your little Mr. Manners charms the servers and fellow diners at your favorite spot.