It’s a common feeling among new parents: You’ve been cooped up at home with your baby for too long, you want to let someone else do the cooking and enjoy a family meal… and then it all ends in disaster when your little one just isn’t up to the night out. Here are some tips and tricks to get you through dining out with baby in tow with as little fuss as possible.
*Research restaurants beforehand. See who’s kid-friendly, when they might have ‘kids eat free’ specials on, and when dinner service starts. Restaurants that have a kids’ menu or meal specials already know what to expect from family dinners, so they’ll be less upset if your little one does have a meltdown. Try to go earlier in the evening if possible, so it’ll be less crowded.
*Researching the menu beforehand will also give you an idea of whether a picky eater will be able to find something they’ll enjoy there. Look for meals that are small enough for your child to handle, but also quickly-prepared enough that they won’t get restless waiting for it. If possible, order a family-size appetizer or skip directly to the main course.
*Set behavior guidelines for the evening at home, well before you go. Teaching your kids what you expect from them while you’re at a restaurant will help cut down on blowups once you’re there. Use eating out as a reward for good behavior, and let your little one have a special treat in the restaurant that isn’t a regular part of home meals.
*Bring some toys and books along, just in case there’s a long wait for a table or for the food to arrive. If your child gets restless, get up and take a short walk with them, or make a game of finding interesting things in the restaurant (“I Spy” might be a good table game to play). Young children aren’t prepared to sit quietly for a long stretch, so help them out.
*Sit in a booth if possible. It’s the safest place to put an infant’s car seat, and it’s out of the way if your little one has a full-on meltdown.
*Bring a snack, just in case the meal takes a long time to reach you! If you’re still breastfeeding, don’t be afraid to feed baby right there at the table; most US states legally support your right to breastfeed wherever you are.
*Be prepared for an epic meltdown, since there’s no way to know beforehand whether one’s coming. Enforce the big behavior rules, but don’t get into a fight over small ones. If your child completely loses their cool, have an escape plan – for example, one parent takes the kid back to the car or outside while the other pays the bill and waits for take-home bags.
*Don’t give up if your first family dinner – or second, or third – ends in disaster! Keep trying to take your child out to dinner with you as a special treat, and sooner or later they’ll get the hang of it. Repeating the experience will help them learn how to interact with it. Also, as you settle into a family restaurant as regulars, the staff will get to know your whole family and be better able to help you out.