There's no reason to leave baby behind for a family meal on the town—well, if you have the right game plan, that is. Check out these pointers from Tammy Gold, founder of Gold Parent Coaching, and you and baby will be enjoying your favorite restaurant together in no time.
1. Mentally prep
First things first, know what you're getting into. “The key to a smooth dinner is parent prep,” says Gold. Decide what your child is ready for, anticipate what could happen (tantrum, diaper explosion), determine how to prevent it and consider what you'll do if it happens anyway. Just thinking about how you'll handle these little blips is really half the battle.
2. Pick the right location
“Look for places with lots of space to walk around,” says Gold. “This way, you can take a tour of the place before the meal, and maybe a tour while you're waiting for the food.” Keeping baby engaged and moving around can really help blow off some steam and keep him from getting bored (i.e. cranky). Look for venues with some interesting distractions too—maybe there’s a large painting or an aquarium in the restaurant. A playground across the street? Even better. Definitely stay away from places with dim lights and fine crystal. No time to scope it out ahead of time? Call to see if they offer high chairs or boosters. If not, that's your sign that they probably aren't used to tiny patrons.
3. Time it well
Hungry babies are rarely happy, so definitely work within your child's schedule. If it's not possible to actually eat during baby's mealtime, Gold recommends feeding him at home and then bringing along a snack as a distraction. If dinner will last through bedtime, consider pulling the stroller right up to the table, and don't forget any blankies or other bedtime soothers. Try not to make plans that will keep you out late, though. “A 1-year-old can't go out to dinner at nine,” she says.
4. Bring toys
Most importantly, Gold suggests bringing along a special stock of “restaurant-only” toys—novel goodies that baby doesn't get to play with at home or in the car. “Boredom is the biggest trigger of tantrums and bad behavior,” Gold says, explaining that baby's amusement is all up to you. “If their needs are met, you can meet yours.” And tactile stimulation is best. “Go for small, sturdy books and items with bright colors.” The real trick, though, is to reserve your ammo. “If you have 15 toys and present them all at once, you won't get very far,” says Gold. Instead, give one at a time, maximizing your time and baby's attention span. Make the most of the tools you've got, and you might even make it to dessert.
5. Set it up
Be sure to clear away any dangerous items from the table and anything that baby might grab and hurl. Also, take notice of built-in “toys” (especially if your own stash is skimpy). Gold is a strong believer in the power of a few empty plastic cups and says that plastic spoons and jelly packets work great too. For older babies, you can make eating a hands-on project. “Cut up the food. Let them hold it. Let them dip it in the ketchup. These are all ways to lengthen their ability to engage,” she says. And, for the actual seating arrangements, bring along a backup in case the high chairs are all taken. Chicco's 360 Rotating Hook-On Booster Chair is a great portable option that lets baby face the table to eat or face outward to interact with you, the Stokke Xplory stroller lifts right up to table height and the Kaboost portable high chair booster raises a toddler's restaurant chair to grownup level.
6. Go with it
Keeping baby at bay is seriously an art. “The key is to engage, engage, engage—and then you can have your freedom,” says Gold. In other words, if baby keeps busy, you can do more eating and chatting—and less retrieving of the sippy cup from three booths over. And if it's just not working out? Hey, you tried. It can take some serious practice to learn what works best to keep your child engaged and happy. “It might not go the way you planned this time. Or next time,” Gold admits. But you'll get it. And about all those squished fries under the table? Don't forget to tip your server.