Back when the only mouth you had to feed was your own, going out to eat could sometimes be a carefree, three-hour affair. Perhaps it was even kicked off with a cocktail, because… well… you could.
After having kids, dining sometimes becomes a contest to see who-can-shovel-it-in-faster-before-the-meltdown starts. You might find yourself giving the waitress the family’s entire order when she’s simply asking who wants a cup of coffee. You might even find yourself apologizing to the busboy as he stares at what your kids have “created” beneath the table.
What does it take to make dining out with kids enjoyable again? As with many key tasks in parenthood, it will require patience and creativity, and a few smart ideas, like…
The busy bag!
This idea isn’t new, but what you fill it with should be. Keep the Busy Bag in the car, only to be pulled out for those special dining-out occasions. There should almost be a Pavlovian-type response to the Busy Bag: Mom is bringing this out for me to stay occupied!
Maintaining a fresh rotation of goodies will keep anticipation high. Fill it with washable markers instead of crayons (more thrilling), lacing cards, a calculator, or a few favorite figurines. Avoid stickers and toys with lots of pieces, unless you like to spend your lunch under the table picking up miniature objects off a sticky floor.
I spy or letter searches!
These activities are classics for a reason. Chatting about what you and your child see around you is always a must, but presenting your current atmosphere as a visual playground of colors, textures, and letters can make the wait go by faster.
Letter searches on the menu for toddlers tend to soak up time. Older kids feel proud when they find sight words either on the menu or the walls of a decked out chain restaurant. If you are with many kids, challenge them to test each other.
Please pass the sugar
Sugar and sweetener packets make for one of the best keep ‘em busy tools on the table. Use silverware to create a tic-tac-toe game. Sorting the packets by color can keep little diners occupied.
If there are enough packets, play a Go Fish-like card game. Also, use the stackable packs of jams and jellies to create towers of entertainment.
“Pardon me? Could we get more…?”
Flag down the waiter or waitress to ask for supplies. The communal crayon bins are teeming with germs, so fresh restaurant necessities turn into a playful alternative.
Coloring on or poking holes into a take-out container turn kids into mealtime engineers. Extra straws, chopsticks, lemon wedges, and napkins might make for a little more mess on the table, but can spark some ingenuity.
Dash… then dine
When your kids get restless, a quick trip to the bathroom to wash hands or a lap around the restaurant can add a much-needed change of scenery. Kids sometimes aren’t too different than adults – a short walk can re-energize the spirit and send focus back to the task at hand.
So don’t lose heart… or your appetite! With a little bit of planning and ingenuity, dining out with kids can be fun again…for everyone.