It’s a special occasion, you have visitors in town, or you just can’t face cooking tonight. You want to take your family out to eat, but as a family with small children, the thought of a meal at a restaurant might induce panic. I still shudder at the memory of a dinner with out-of-town relatives that stretched on for hours when my oldest was a toddler. The temptation to rely on screens to entertain children in restaurants is understandable. You’ve no doubt seen a child glued to a phone or tablet while the adults at the table enjoyed appetizers and civilized conversation. Maybe you thought, “I’d never do that.” Or maybe it was more like, “That looks amazing,” as you wistfully mopped up a drink spill.
There are so many compelling benefits to a "device free dinner," though, from opportunities for family connection and better conversation to simply teaching your children important social skills. From start to finish, here are some tips for an enjoyable, screen-free restaurant experience:
Spill-proof drink cups and appropriate utensils go a long way towards baby and toddler restaurant success. For kids likely to overturn plates, a placemat that sticks to the table can be a game changer. This one is easy to wipe down at the end of a meal and rolls up to fit in your bag. Pack a few teething or tactile toys that can be attached to a baby’s wrist, clothing, or carrier handle to save yourself from crawling around on a food-strewn floor to retrieve dropped items. For a child who uses a high chair, an engaging toy that suctions to the table is a great option, like the Sticky Spinner High Chair Activity Toy.
A small set of interlocking or magnetic building toys is the perfect choice for preschoolers at the table. Packing something for little hands to do discourages alternatives, like silverware symphonies or salt-and-pepper snow.
Mess-free art supplies, like Scratch Art, Magna Doodle, or a small container of beads with pipe cleaners for stringing them are fun additions to the standard provided crayons.
Dining out is an opportunity to teach children how to be polite and speak for themselves. Even a toddler can say, “Pizza, please!” To teach children to engage appropriately with others at the table, it helps to have a few conversation starters at the ready. Go around the table to ask each person, “What was your favorite part of today?”
It’s helpful to establish a few standby waiting games, because the chances are slim that new ideas will dawn on you while sitting in a crowded restaurant with fidgety kids.