Once we have children everything changes. The TV shows suddenly turn to cartoons, our 10 hour nights turn into 6 hours of interrupted sleep, and dinner time becomes a three ring circus. Things that were once just taken for granted now look very different.
One thing that seems to throw most people for a loop is eating out once their children hit toddler age. The idea of being in an enclosed space, with a lot of people, for longer than 20 minutes with their toddler sounds unbearable and quite honestly impossible to most parents. The moment that it is even suggested, moms and dads all over the world start to sweat and think of all of the things that could go wrong.
Here’s the thing though, children are without a doubt going to change our lives, but it doesn’t mean that our lives have to be controlled by them. They came to live with us, not the other way around. It takes intentionality, but there are definitely ways to incorporate them into the lives that we already have without having to give up all of the things that we love.
When we had our daughter, one of the most important things to me was that we try to have dinner as a family every single night. I feel like there is no greater family time than that gathered around the table. We started this from the time that she was able to sit up in a Bumbo. We tried to find ways to include her without making it all about her. It wasn’t ever perfect, quiet, or long, but it was consistent. Because she was used to sitting down at the table at home every night, when we would take her out to eat it was no different. She was able to sit and eat with us as a family.
Now, she is a toddler and we have taken her to some of the nicest restaurants from San Francisco to Atlanta, and they have been enjoyable experiences. She eats what we give her, she doesn’t need us to entertain her the entire meal, and she sits in her own seat. Yes, there is the occasional napkin throwing and temper tantrum, but she is 2 and we can’t expect her to act like an adult. However, children are so incredibly adaptable, and capable of so much, if we just give them the guidance and the opportunities.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when “training” them:
- Be realistic: No matter how “well behaved” a toddler is, they are still a toddler. They still have more energy, less impulse control, and shorter attention spans than we do. These are all things that can be strengthened, like they can be taught how to sit still at a table, or not throw their forks, but we shouldn’t expect a 2-year-old to sit through a 5 course meal.
- Be consistent: Think about what your goals are, and then be super consistent with enforcing the standards to reach them. If you want them to eat in their seat, always make them sit in their seat until everyone is finished eating. (We typically will let her sit with us before the food arrives, and after we are finished eating, but she must sit in her own seat while we eat.) If you want to be able to eat your meal and talk to someone other than your child, eat your food and don’t talk to them the whole time. Find ways to incorporate them into the meal and conversation (as much as you can) , but treat them just like another person at the table. It takes time and consistency, but they can and they will learn that it isn’t all about them.
- Be prepared: This goes with being realistic. Since we know they have short attention spans, we need to offer them ways to deal with that. Have a couple of toys or activities that are only for eating out. Then when they do get to use them, it is a special treat. Give them one at a time to prolong the interest, and decrease the mess. Here are a few recommendations: Colorform reusable stickers, Water Wow Books, Magna-doodle, Soft Books, Indestructible Books, and Manhattan Toy Company Wooden Clutching Toy/ Teether (this is great to keep their hands busy)
- Be patient: Be patient with them, and be patient with yourself. They will definitely sense your energy, and if you are anxious or stressed, they will probably play off of that, creating a tense meal time. Relax, enjoy the time with your family, and remember that they are learning. Toddlers need guidance and understanding along the way, but they will rise to the occasion if given the opportunity.