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I have a confession to make. When COVID hit, one of my silver linings was having a legit excuse not to dine out with my toddler in tow. For me, eating out with our two-year-old is a double-edged sword. On one hand, someone else does the cooking. On the other, it’s still a lot of work. But after three kids, I’ve found a few ways to have my cake—or rather, chef-made meal—and eat it, too (usually not at breakneck speed). Here’s how to say “yes” to your next dinner invite and stay sane when you do.

Eat early.

My kids usually eat on the early side to begin with, so hitting our favorite restaurant before 5:30 p.m. isn’t much of a stretch. If you get there early enough, you can usually get seated right away. Plus, since the kitchen isn’t as busy, food is brought to the table faster, too. Less wait time equals happier toddlers (and happier parents!).

Tag-team with your spouse.

Toddlers always seem to be on the go—like extra-shot-of-espresso busy. It’s clearly their natural state. That’s why my husband and I have taken to dividing up dinner shifts when we go out. Our two-year-old can usually make it through ordering before she’s ready to check out a new scene. When she gets restless, my husband takes her to explore while I wait for food. Quick text when the food comes and everyone eats together. Then it’s my turn to take her wandering while he finishes up. We both get to eat in peace, and so does she.

Three words: Kids. Play. Area.

We used to have this great restaurant in our neighborhood centered around a kid’s play area. Literally. There were bar seats around an octagonal “pit” filled with toys. Parents could belly up and have a (somewhat) leisurely dinner while the kiddos played just a few steps away. Even if it’s just a small play table with books, crayons and a few toys, finding a spot where kids can be entertained by something new to them takes a lot of pressure off everyone. Bonus points if the play spot is situated where parents can enjoy their meal while the tots play nearby.

Order from a food truck (or window).

Brick-and-mortar isn’t the only way to eat out these days. With so many amazing food trucks and walk-up windows out there, it’s easy to pass on making dinner and get out of the house with your kids. This is an especially toddler-friendly option because the food comes out fast, and when it does, you can take it to a local playground, park or beach to enjoy. Plenty of space for your kiddo to roam while you enjoy a hot meal you didn’t have to prep. Everyone wins!

Pack the two A’s.

It goes without saying that having things for kids to focus on while they wait at the table is a must. I always pack the two A’s—appetizers and activities—for my kids when we go out. “Appetizers” (like fresh fruit, little bites of cheese or edamame) that I can dole out piece by piece and that take a while to eat are always in my diaper bag. I also pack a few small toys that hold my daughter’s attention—like magnetic blocks or storyboards. She’s got something to do before and after our meal.

Try fast-food casual.

While we aren’t a big drive-thru family, we do hit fast-food casual spots when we’re on the go with our two-year-old. There’s something about breaking up the meal into parts that helps her stay focused longer. We have a short line to wait through to order, where she can be wiggly as she wants. And the time between ordering and eating is shorter than it is at a sit-down restaurant. In the end, if we need to, we can pack up quickly—think of it as toddler escape route—in the event of a meltdown.

Pick a family-friendly spot.

If there’s one thing you can trust parents to know, it’s family-friendly restaurants. You’ll recognize them by the stash of booster seats, high chairs and slings stacked in the corner; the noise level is another dead giveaway. They’re the spots where the wait staff is always on top of grabbing the crayon or Wikki Stix pack before taking you to your table. And where they know to put a top on your kid’s water before setting it in front of them. Familiarize yourself with these places. They exist for toddler parents. Because even if your tot melts down over the crusts on their grilled cheese, you can relax… these are your people.

Invite another family along.

When it comes to entertaining the three-and-under set at meal times, sometimes you gotta leave it to the professionals—other kids. Our family likes to go out with other families that have toddlers along for the ride, and not just because we get to swap stories with our parent friends. We find that the kids will often keep each other entertained during meal time. The caveat with this one? Make sure the kids play well together.

Never underestimate the power of an outdoor patio.

Because toddlers need space, there are outdoor patios. And let’s be honest, on a sunny day, there’s no better spot to grab food than under an umbrella. Sit along the perimeter so your kiddo has some space, then sit back and relax. With so much to look at and even just a little freedom to roam, toddlers tend to do better outside than inside. Just remember to pack the sunscreen.

—Allison Sutcliffe

Allison Sutcliffe is a writer, educator, and mom of three. When she’s not wrangling kids, you’ll find her hiking, baking or (dreaming about) enjoying a quiet cup of coffee. She is the Seattle City Editor at Red Tricycle. Read more by Allison here.