Taking Toddlers to Restaurants: Do You Dare?

Cynthia Dermody

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Photo by Manda5463

Dining out should be fun and relaxing, but with unpredictable toddlers it often leads to indigestion. My husband and I will attempt the diner or pizza joint with our 5 year old and 3 year old once in a while. But any place that has an order-to-serve window longer than about 7 minutes, forget it. The night would just end up as it usually does, with me inhaling my lemon sole as my husband fights to restrain my daughter, who just wants to do laps around all the tables.

And then you have other restaurant horror stories like the one from one mom in the Stay at Home Moms group (membership required).

She and her husband took their 2 and 3 year olds to a steak house the other night. Her 2 year old started to cry. She took her to the bathroom and calmed her down, but she continued to fuss back at the table.

"A guy came over to my husband and told him to get my crying little brat out of here. He said he didn't come here to listen to that and we needed to leave. Then he got a manager and said he wanted a refund because that brat was crying the whole time, and the restaurant shouldn't allow that to happen."

The manager offered the mom a gift card to return, but she refused and apologized. "But we will return if we choose to because it is a public place. My 2 year old just had a meltdown. She's two!"

Oh, boy, have I been there. Just so awkward. But Toddler Moms can't avoid restaurants forever. How will our toddlers learn to behave in restaurants if we never take them!

I decided to bring MrsManners in on the conversation. She's owner of the Manners for the Modern Family group and also runs a website called MannersMadeFun.com.

So, what are the basic rules of toddler etiquette at restaurants?

Never let your child run around unattended, period. Setting the dangerous aspects of it aside, having your child walk up to another table is just over the top. While other diners have chosen to enter the family-friendly zone, if they wanted a child at the table with them, they probably would have brought their own.

Parents shouldn't let their children run wild, but a little bit of noise should be expected. If a person enters an obviously family friendly restaurant, they should know that they are going to get the occasional child staring at them over the back of a booth and some crying. It goes with the territory. Fine dining (where you wouldn't be caught dead in jeans, cargo pants or khakis) is the exception to the rule.

When should we remove our misbehaving or noisy tykes from the table -- oreven  leave the restaurant?

As a rule of thumb, if you are uncomfortable, so is everyone else. Remove yourself as quickly as possible. Politely grab your server's attention and ask if they could help you by either getting your food to go or wrapping it up for you. If the situation is really that bad, they will be more than happy to help you in any way possible because you were kind enough to respond to the situation.

Is there any way to get your toddler to "practice" being good in a restaurant?

With older toddlers, try making a game out of it at home. Pretend you are going out and have them act the way you want them to. Then take them to a fast-food restaurant to practice their "skills" in a real-world scenario. When you think they're ready, give a sit-down, family friendly restaurant a go.

Just remember that toddlers are inherently unpredictable. You can practice all you want and it could still end up with a to-go box, or it can go perfectly and you'll find yourself enjoying a second cup of coffee after dinner. If they are already in a bad mood, don't try taking them to a restaurant.

Any other ways to bring out the Emily Post in our little ones?

Try working on volume control -- a great resource is the board book Quiet Loud by Leslie Patricelli. While you read it, change the volume of your voice to reflect the appropriate volume. Then identify one as an indoor voice and one as an outdoor voice. Be consistent with these at all times, and that way if your child starts to get too loud in a restaurant, they will know what you mean when you ask them to use your indoor voice. The key to the whole situation is never letting it get to a point where someone would WANT to complain.

What's the absolute worst experience you've ever had with your toddlers in a restaurant?

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