This is how I get my 3-year-old to behave—plus a few surprising tricks from other parents who enjoy a meal out once in a while. 

By Anna Davies
Updated June 04, 2018
kid in restaurant
Credit: Images By Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

The first time I took my daughter to a restaurant, she was five weeks old. For the first time since she was born, I felt normal. Here was someone waiting on me! Here was food I didn’t have to make! Ever since then, I’ve made restaurant trips a priority for us. It hasn’t always been easy—around the ages of two to two-and-a-half it was a lot less complicated to do take-out or make quick stops—but now that my daughter is three, I can honestly say I enjoy going to a restaurant with her.

We don’t use a tablet or a phone, and we’ve found different “wins” the more we dine out. A place with a fish tank? Instant win. Having her pack her own purse of toys she can play with, including a lip gloss? Also a genius move. Now that my daughter has some little friends of her own, I’ve found going to dinner with another similarly-aged toddler can keep the peace for everyone—and I’ve learned that there’s no crime in ordering French fries along with a drink order. I’ve also learned that every single time you dine out is different, and going with the flow, not taking anything too seriously, and being able to realize the most epic meltdowns make the best memories can help keep things in perspective.

That's just what works for me. When it comes to parenting, everyone travels a different path. But take an organic-everything mom, a “bring on the preservatives” dad, a free-range parent, and a helicopter parent, and what's the one thing that unites them all? The restaurant horror story. Instead, let's unite around our restaurant strategies—starting with these hacks from parents who can now honestly say they look forward to dining out in public with their kids.

kid in restaurant
Credit: Images By Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

Feed them first (at home).

“I wish I was the type of mom that packs her bags with stickers and coloring books, but when I go out to dinner I want a peaceful meal—I don’t want to have to reach into my bag every 5 seconds. So usually I’ll feed the kids a healthy meal before we go out to eat, and when they get to the restaurant, we immediately order them dessert. They sit in silence eating their treat and my husband and I get to enjoy our dinner. And it’s cheaper since we don’t have to spend money on their kid's meal!” Nicole Yorio Jurick, mom of three and owner of Peasful Kitchen, a cooking school for families based in Hoboken, NJ.

Put away your phones.

Emily Farris, mom of a two-year-old who Instagrams @theboozybungalow, says the secret to successful dining with her toddler is making sure she and her partner put away their phones and engage. “We play I Spy, talk about what’s on the walls, or what we’re going to eat. We’re also realistic: If he starts getting fussy, one of us will go out and sit outside, then take turns finishing up our meals.”

Get a table outdoors.

Every parent I spoke with agreed (as do I): Going to a restaurant with outdoor seating gives your child a bit more room to run around, plus they can also be a little bit louder than indoors, and the outdoor scenery—“look, there’s a truck!”—can provide plenty of distractions.

Get ice on the side.

Cheri, a mom of two, whose husband is a chef, has brought her two daughters to restaurants since infancy, and found that ice is pretty much the best toy for babies and toddlers ever. “I always ask for a rocks glass with ice. It's simple, not too messy, and everywhere. You could put a couple cubes on the table for an 8-month-old, and they'll watch the cubes melt or push them back and forth. Give the glass of ice with spoon for 13+ month old, and they'll play long enough for you to eat your meal.”