By Kristy Wilson
I remember when my daughter was still small enough to fit in her carrier. We would go out to eat and I wouldn’t think anything about it. We would typically plan to go in between her feedings, then we could leave her in her seat from start to finish of the meal as long as things moved fairly quick.
Man, is it a different story today. We now have two little ones (3 years old and 9 months) and we rarely go out to eat because there is often more effort involved in going out than there is just cooking a meal at home. However, if we do go out to eat there are a few steps that we take to better ensure that we will all have a good time. Here are a few tips if you plan to venture out:
- Make sure that you go with plenty of time to spare before bedtime. I know, I know. This sounds like a no-brainer, however, we have failed at this miserably before and paid the price. It is never enjoyable to make it through a fun meal only to have a screaming child the whole way home because it is past bedtime. This can be tricky for our family because while our 3-year-old can stay out a bit later our 9-month-old turns into a pumpkin no later than 7 p.m., which often means that we could qualify for the early bird special if we were old enough.
- Choose your restaurant based on the foods that you know that your child will eat, or plan to bring foods for them. For example, we often go to places that have a few staples on the menu that I know that our toddler will eat, like mac ‘n cheese, pizza, French fries, apple sauce pouches, etc. We used to frequent places that had hot dogs and corn dogs (please don’t judge, we don’t go out often at all), but given the recent research this likely won’t matter for us anymore!
- Go to places that have salad bars. I know that there are not too many of them in town, but salad bars offer great finger foods for kids (shredded cheese, diced ham, bean salad, croutons, chopped eggs, etc.) and usually only charge a few dollars for kids to eat from them. Sometimes they will let parents get an extra plate for free to fill for their kids. We like The Ribeye (because it also has bread for the kids to munch on that comes out right away), but Ruby Tuesday, Courier Café and Urbana Garden Family Restaurant are a few others in town with salad bars.
- Take a few toys or things to occupy your little one. I usually keep a bag with less-perishable food items (puffs, granola bars, squeeze applesauce, animal crackers, etc.) in the car along with some small “busy” toys. Not too long ago I wrote an article about “busy bags.” Most “busy bags” are a great item that you can leave in the car and throw in a diaper bag or food bag to help manage the wait time (waiting to be seated, waiting to order, waiting for food, waiting for mom and dad to finish eating because they took care of the kids first, etc.).
- Wipes, wipes, wipes! Did I mention wipes? Let’s face it, some places just don’t wipe down their high chairs. With cold and flu season coming, I don’t take chances. I usually have at least two kinds of wipes with me from the following array: baby wipes (good for cleaning the toddler after he/she is done eating), wet ones (good for wiping off any toys that were thrown on the floor that baby is desperately wanting back before you can take it home and sanitize more appropriately), and Clorox wipes (I typically only use these on the high chair or table when we first arrive). Don’t be fooled by the smell of bleach water on the recently wiped table you are seated at. My husband and I recently dined at a restaurant with our kids (not a local place) where we witnessed them wipe the table. But when our teething son started trying to chew on the side of it I took a baby wipe to the top and was shocked when the wipe, and several after it, turned dark brown. Yuck! We also like to go out to breakfast as a family, but breakfast-restaurant high chairs are the worst! Sticky, icky messes of jelly and syrup slathered with grease! So, I come prepared to fight influenza or the previous toddler’s leftovers, whichever the case may be.
- Consider the seating available to you. I find it best to be sat in a corner or an outside space. This gives less of an opportunity for an audience when my child starts acting out and sees that others find it a bit humorous.
- Have a game plan. If you will be dining with a partner or a friend who will be helping with the kids, talk with the person on the drive to the restaurant and come up with a basic plan for the meal. If the children get fussy during any of the waiting periods, who will take them out for a walk? Who will eat first if the child needs to get up from the table? Who will be in charge of diaper changes, potty trips, etc. Having a plan helps to balance the workload and create a better chance that all adults enjoy the time and truly see eating out as a break.
- Live music! Our daughter loves music. I will never forget the time that my husband took her on a “date” and they went to Houlihan’s for dessert. There was a jazz band playing in the outside seating area. She was mesmerized! The band provided the entertainment that kept her engaged in the dining out experience, and she talked about it for months after.
These are just a few tips and suggestions that we have found to work for our family. What dining out with toddlers tips would you add?
Kristy Wilson considers herself a “townie” having lived in the community for more than 26 years. She grew up in Unit 4 schools and attended the University of Illinois. Kristy is passionate about her professional work as a social worker. In her spare time she enjoys food! In particular she loves to try new recipes and sample new dishes at local eateries.