How to Arm Yourself to Go out to Dinner With Kids Without a Screen

by Parent Co. January 04, 2018

A kid is holding a spoon in mouth for dinner

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:

Do some restaurant reconnaissance

Call to confirm the restaurant has high chairs if you’ll need one (and by default, determine whether the place you’ve chosen welcomes little guests). Scout out menu options and pack baby food or toddler snacks if needed. To avoid waiting with starving kids, feed them a snack before you go, or plan to order an appetizer right away. baby with People toy mirror ball at restaurant People toy company logo

Parent Co. partnered with People Toy Co. because they know the right toys can make otherwise tedious moments fun and easy.

Pack kid-friendly supplies

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 Brain Builders: Magic Reflection Ball from People Toy Company. toys and products to distract babies at restaurant
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. People Toy Co. magnetic blocks to distract preschoolers at restaurant
Older kids
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. art supplies for older kids at restaurants

Teach restaurant behavior

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?” The Family Dinner Project has a long list of other ideas. Plus, if you’re dining with your perpetually single college roommate or stoic great aunt, this gives other adults a little help interacting with your kids.

Make waiting fun

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. Games that can grow with your family – or the amount of time it takes for your meal to arrive – are especially useful:

What’s Missing?

Set up five small items from your bag or from the table – yes, condiments and blunt utensils are now up for grabs – and take turns secretly removing one so others have to guess the missing object. Gradually include more items.

I Spy

Once your kids know the general principles of looking for something of a certain color, you can mix it up. Try, “I spy something striped,” “I spy something that rhymes with moon,” or “I spy something that starts with the same sound as Mommy.” You could also hunt for letters, words, or items on the menu or signs.

The Question Game

Whether you limit it to 20 or not, asking yes-or-no deductive questions is another easily expandable activity. Start a small category and suggest helpful questions for your child. “I’m thinking of a pet. You could ask if it has fur.” Expand to other topics, like sports, foods, or favorite characters.

Tell a Story

Once again, the salt and pepper, or any of their counterparts, can be the stars of the dinner show. Establish “characters” using items on the table, imagine a setting, and work together to tell (or gently act out) an original tale. For all of these games, you’ll want to model how to participate first so your kids understand how to join in effectively. If you play often, you’ll likely notice an improvement in their vocabulary and reasoning skills, which is a nice bonus to passing the time until the chicken fingers arrive.

Quit while you’re ahead

As pleasant as it can be to linger at the table after a delicious meal, this is an unrealistic expectation for many small children. If you want to continue the fun after everyone eats, plan to take a walk or move on to another venue. Or, just head home with the promise of another meal out soon. Going out to eat with children screen-free can be done (your parents likely survived such outings with you, after all), and everyone involved can emerge satiated and unscathed. The occasional infamous evening of spills, botched orders, and angry sighs from other patrons who don’t seem to remember life with small children will happen regardless. But rest assured that, with some advance preparation and tricks up your sleeve, you’ll be the one basking in the glow of other diners’ compliments, which may feel just as good as savoring that uninterrupted tapas platter. People toy company logo

Parent Co. partnered with People Toy Co. because they know the right toys can make otherwise tedious moments fun and easy.

Parent Co.


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