Selecting a Dining Plan with Toddlers and Preschoolers

by Kylie Chamberlin, contributing writer

Parents of toddlers and preschoolers know that young children have a unique set of dining needs and preferences. Every child is different and has different levels of dining readiness. Thankfully, the Walt Disney World Resort offers several dining plans from which to choose.

Dining plans allow guests to prepay meals and snacks for the duration of their trip. All meal and snack credits are on the account when guests arrive, and can be used at the guest's discretion. You could use one meal on one day, and two snacks and three meals the next day. Redeeming rewards is as simple as scanning a Magic Band. Breakfasts include a beverage and an entrée (with the sides offered at the dining location). Lunches and dinners include a beverage, entrée, and a dessert. All plans also include a Rapid-Fill Resort Mug for drink fill-ups at any Disney Resort hotel.

The Quick-Service Dining Plan option offers families two quick service meals a day and a snack. The Disney Dining Plan allows families one quick- service meal, one snack and one table service meal a day. The Deluxe Dining Plan gives guests three meals, quick service or table, and two snacks a day. The Disney Premium Plan includes three meals and two snacks, plus access to unlimited recreation, select tours, and children's centers. The Disney Platinum Plan includes all the Premium Plan does, plus additional perks like Fantasmic! reserved seating, spa treatment and Wishes/Illuminations viewing. These are per guest, for all guests in the party ages 3 and older.

For children younger than 3, parents will need to share their meals or other food will have to be purchased (or brought to the restaurant). For families of toddlers, this is a huge consideration. While portion sizes at most dining locations are very generous, they might seem sparse if you are sharing with one or two voraciously hungry toddlers. It’s helpful to pay attention to the amount your child typically eats at home and/or at daycare and school. Some children are light eaters, and constantly sharing meals might be simple with them. Others are naturally hungrier or might vary greatly in the amount of food they need to consume. If you have more than one child younger than 3 in your party, or if you have a very hungry tyke (especially one near the 3-year-old cut off), it might be better to go with a plan that offers more meals per guest per day.

Keep in mind that many snacks at the resorts and parks are large enough and nutritionally sound enough to be a meal for a toddler. Another good option is bringing in non-refrigerated snacks, like fruit pouches or puffs, for toddler snacks or to add to shared meals. Most establishments have offerings that will appeal to even the pickiest of eaters, as well. It’s not hard to find chicken fingers or a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich for the not-so-adventurous toddler or preschooler tastes.

It is also important to consider your child's level of dining readiness, especially with preschoolers. Quick-service dining restaurants are generally casual and relaxed. They might be comparable to restaurants at home where you pick up your own food and find your own table. They usually have a short or medium wait for food, depending on the time of year and time of day you go. Table-service dining can vary greatly from being just slightly fancy, to being a very fine dining establishment.

Think about taking your child to a few restaurants before your trip and note how well they sit at a table, how comfortable they are waiting for food to be delivered, and how loud/energetic they usually are while eating. Some preschoolers might be ready to happily enjoy lots of table service dining, and some might be more comfortable in a quick-service environment. It's important to think about which your child is more comfortable with to be sure everyone can enjoy their dining and to maximize value. You can always downgrade by using a table-service dining credit for a quick service meal with the Disney dining plans. However, it might be frustrating for parents to be constantly downgrading when they paid for table-service meals.

Another key to consider is what role dining will play in your trip and how it factors in at home. Some children do best with regimented meal times. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to consider a dining plan with at least one table-service meal a day. Most table-service restaurants have reservation options, which make planning that specific meal time a lot easier, since the time and wait of quick-service establishments will vary on park or resort volume that day. Additionally, if character dining is a huge element in your trip, a deluxe or dining plan may fit your family better. However, if your child is a "grazer" or enjoys being very flexible in eating, a quick-service plan might better suit their needs.

Dining plans can be a great tool for families. With toddlers and preschoolers, dining plans might seem like a difficult option. However, by planning a few strategic outings to restaurants near home, and paying close attention to your own child’s eating habits in the weeks leading up to vacation, parents can make an informed choice and have a wonderful vacation.