SEVERAL YEARS ago my extended family shared a meal at a boisterous Italian restaurant. Even before our appetizers had arrived, my then 18-month-old nephew had spilled soda, played “guess which hand the sugar packet’s in,” gone on a walking tour of the dining room, dropped two forks, and tried to take off his shirt while in his high chair.

As anyone with a 1- or 2-year-old knows, taking a toddler to a restaurant is no day at the beach (which, by the way, is no day at the beach either). He just doesn’t have the skill set yet. Your little guest finds it difficult to sit still, is prone to tantrums, and likely has a limited interest in new cuisine, says Parents advisor Jenn Mann, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. Still, dining out is a great way to encourage flexibility. Ready to survey the restaurant scene with your toddler? Try these tips so you don’t always have to eat at home.

Keep it casual.

“The first outings are about getting used to eating somewhere other than the kitchen table and trying food that’s not prepared by Mommy or Daddy,” says etiquette expert Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., coauthor of Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners. You don’t have to limit yourself to fast food, but it makes sense to pick a restaurant that’s family-friendly. Otherwise, you may be embarrassed and angry if your child is disruptive, when really it’s not her fault. Look for places that have a kid’s menu and high chairs. Chances are they’re used to a little (or a lot of) noise and mess.

Consider timing.

Plan restaurant meals around your toddler’s sleep schedule. If he typically naps at 1 p.m., an early dinner is a better idea than lunch at noon, for example. “This is about your child’s needs, not yours,” says Dr. Mann, who once staged a restaurant intervention with a mom whose 18-month-old was flinging silverware across the table. “This woman was at her wits’ end. She was yelling, ‘No! Do not do that!’ as she grabbed her son’s wrist and face. Eventually, I bent down so the other diners couldn’t hear me and said, ‘You seem to be having a hard time. I’m a mom, too, and a therapist. Can I help?’ Then we talked about what she could do to prevent these kinds of situations in the future.” As they spoke, Dr. Mann found out that it was an hour and a half past the child’s usual bedtime. No wonder he was out of control.

Be prepared.

When my own son was a toddler and we were getting ready for a meal at a restaurant, my husband always joked, “Do you have your little bag of tricks?” But this was no laughing matter—it worked every time. Finger puppets, sheer scarves for peekaboo, and sorting toys that fit on a high-chair tray are great for keeping little kids occupied. Try to avoid handing your phone or tablet to your toddler. “She’ll miss out on the experience of interacting with people, which is part of what dining out is about,” says Dr. Mann. That said, you shouldn’t expect your toddler to sit for more than 20 minutes in a high chair. After that, you or your partner will probably have to take her for a walk before she’ll sit quietly again. “Little bodies need to move,” says Dr. Mann. “Fortunately, taking a quick jaunt outside is like pressing a toddler’s ‘refresh’ button.”

Flag the waiter.

If you want time to actually eat your food before your kid has a meltdown, place your order as quickly as possible (hint: read the menu online ahead of time). You might think it’s helpful to order your kid’s meal as soon as you arrive, but that tactic can backfire in the likely scenario that he finishes eating before your food even arrives—and then he’ll need something to occupy him while you eat. A better plan: Order together, ask the waiter to put a rush on it, and offer your kid a small snack you’ve brought from home to keep him satisfied until his meal comes. If he gets restless or rowdy, be prepared to take your food to go. On the way out, apologize to nearby diners whose meal may have been disrupted (you’ll be surprised how many will give an empathetic “been there” nod). And tip generously if you’ve left a mess behind.