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

by ParentCo. January 30, 2023

dinner with family

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.  

 

Pack kid-friendly supplies

Babies

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

Preschoolers

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. 

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. 

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?” 

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. 

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.


ParentCo.

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