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Eating out with a 3-year-old

by Ashley
Published: Last Updated on 2 comments 322 views 8 minutes read

Our family enjoys going out. A lot. On average, we eat out 2-3x a week. This number increases when we’re traveling or feeling particularly lazy while at home. Pre-child, everyone warned us that this habit would come to a halt when we had offspring. They’re too noisy, fidgety, hard to deal with in public. Say goodbye to that restaurant life!

Well, turns out the warnings were unjustified. We’ve been taking Skyler out to restaurants since he was 6 weeks old, and while he has certainly become more fidgety, with louder opinions and selective hearing, we actually really enjoy taking him out to eat.* Going out to eat is an opportunity for our family to spend quality time together, without having the added stress and burden of cooking and cleaning up. By removing those simple elements, meal times become much more enjoyable, even when we have to deal with a maniac in a child’s body. (At least for us!)

While some children certainly have conditions that just make eating out unrealistic (for example, I’ve seen restaurants just not have a way to accommodate customers in wheelchairs, to the point of having to turn them away) and some parents may choose to just not fight that battle — and that’s fine! We all have to choose which battles are worth our sanity effort. This might not be one of yours. But it is one of ours because going out to eat, whether part of experiencing a new locale or just an effort to reduce domestic chores, is important to our family. Plus, going out to eat is a great way to teach a kid about the joys of a social meal and how to be a reasonable human being interacting with other human beings in public.

We have tried to offer Skyler ample opportunities to practice this skill, because let’s be honest: composing ourselves in public is not an innate skill; we must cultivate it! So if going out to eat with your small child is something you want to try, I hope you find some of this helpful. It can be challenging, it can be incredibly frustrating. Our patience has been tested and no, not every night out is a success. But through trial and error, we’ve developed a system that works for us: we go early, we don’t linger, we look at the menu ahead of time, and we try to mentally prepare Skyler for whatever the plan is (this is regardless of what we’re doing – eating out, going to a friend’s house, grocery shopping).

When we’re at dinner, we’re focusing on sitting still, not being a disruptive PITA to the surrounding diners (he does not yet understand the concept of an “inside voice” 🙄), and being willing to eat different foods. Eating out is also a grand opportunity to let him practice his independence. We encourage him to ask the servers for things that he wants instead of relying on Mama/Dada to do it for him. In fact, not long ago at Chuy’s, when the server asked him what he wanted to drink, he said, “Um… a margarita!” 🤣 They kindly made him a mock-arita.  We’ve even been asking for his input on our restaurant choices lately (and learned our lesson hard when we ignored his suggestion one night only to endure a subpar overpriced meal with a crabby toddler when we could have had a known, reliable option that we all enjoyed). 

As a baby, he was so easy. He’d self-entertain with almost anything we handed him. Menus, napkins, food. But then…. he got older. 

While we do sometimes bring a tablet as “the secret weapon” to whip out at particularly long outings or at establishments that are less child-tolerant, we try to avoid screens at meals as much as possible. Meals are a time for socializing, for being together, for human connection. But as any parent knows, small children don’t give a shit about any of that, and sometimes just need to be entertained.

So we use a Buddy Backpack. Inspired by Mary Poppins and the Barney Bag, a Buddy Backpack is a portable activity bag that you can pull out whenever a child needs quiet play time or distractions (long car rides, waiting rooms, visiting boring places without toys). The one we have is actually called a Buddy backpack but any bag will do — and we are quickly outgrowing our interactive little bag!

We use this adorable activity backpack, which is Skyler-sized and we fill it with as many quiet activities as possible. You want to focus on finding FLAT things to go in the backpack, like stickers, coloring books, lace-up cards, fidget spinners, pop-its, flash cards, colorforms, Water Wow books. We usually take a small magnadoodle and his “cellphone” (a trusty toy he’s had since he was a year old and still adores). He’ll sometimes stick his favorite toy of the moment in there, such as a small car, duplos, dice,  or his beloved Jacob’s ladder. One of his all-time favorite toys is something I made for him when he was right around a year old and have had to replace a few times, but it’s STILL something he enjoys: an empty sprinkles container and q-tips.

As Skyler gets older, though, we need the activity bag less and less. He entertains himself fairly easily at restaurants, these days. Sometimes they provide crayons and activity pages, sometimes he just makes up his own fun stacking creamers or playing with the sugar packets. He usually hams it up for servers, and though we’re still working on the art of conversation, he often talks our ears off. He’s becoming more independent, not as scared to ask for what he wants. And while there are times when I miss the ease of grabbing two bar seats for a quick meal, I never actually dread taking my kid out to eat.

How do YOU use keep your child entertained when you go out to eat? Have you found a system that works for you? Do you take your small child(ren) out to eat? How do you practice good table etiquette, manners, and conversation? For families with more than 1 child, what tactics allow you to have a drama-free dinner?

*I do want to note that our experiences are simply that: ours. We are fortunate to have two parents almost always together, and only the one child to manage. And to our knowledge, our child does not suffer from any significant mental, physical, medical, neurological, or behavioral issues.


cerebralintrovert November 2, 2022 - 10:55 am

I loved his answer for what he wanted to drink, lol. Reminds me of when my daughter was five, ordered a steak (unbeknownst to me), and the server actually came to the table with one. Took me a minute to figure out why our bill had jumped so high.

winnschwartau November 2, 2022 - 1:19 pm

As an occasional parent of the author, yes yes yes. I was raised in NYC and restaurants/bars were a way of life from the beginning. Learn the rules, suffer a few consequences from time to time.

What Ashley forgot to say was that Skyler ate out EVERY SINGLE DAY 3X for 3 weeks on our cruise and visit to South America when the rug rat was only 9 months old. Sure, he fussed once in a while, but parenting is a two way street. Or three. Or a chaotic roundabout like Etoile Charles deGaulle. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Gaulle%E2%80%93%C3%89toile)

Go with the flow. Firm. Gentle. Loved.

Skyler’s Grandad.


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