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Best Ideas for Eating Out with Kids: In fact, when I finish this we’re going to dinner.

By Melissa Summers

My biggest budget weakness used to be Target and the Baby Gap sale rack. But one day (after a few therapy sessions) I was able to stop buying things we didn’t really need just because, “it was on sale!” Now, my biggest budget weakness is eating out with my family. It’s terribly wasteful but I don’t particularly like cooking and I also have a picky family. I don’t want our dinner table to be a battlefield of course, but I also don’t like cooking and listening to my daughter tell me, “This just looks wrong to me.” Or my son ask, “What is that green stuff?” “What is this?” “What about this?” Or even better, I don’t like listening to my husband say: “That just doesn’t sound like I would like it.” He’s 5!
However I do like eating a meal with my family so quite often we combine our family’s social nature with restaurant eating. We’ve been eating out at restaurants since our kids were very little and have never had a real scene. Well, aside from the ‘Hidden Sinus Infection’ incident at a Coney Island where my daughter dumped her water on purpose and, as I went to cancel our order and high tail it out, she dumped all the salt and sugar out on the table. On the way to the car she threw herself to the ground and chipped her tooth. BANNER RESTAURANT OUTING.
There was also a year when my son was two and constantly constipated where we just stayed home. Because being two is already hard and being constantly constipated really ramps up the grumpy into Threat Level: Yellow. You don’t want to be at a restaurant when your child is in Code Yellow. Consider that my first tip.
Here’s some gear and ideas to keep things running smoothly:
minisuitcase.jpgWe have these cute mini suitcases we use for all sorts of things. I use them instead of boxes and wrapping paper to hold gifts, my kids keep their smaller toys in them so they can be stored neatly on a shelf, if your child suddenly decides your rules suck they can even use them to move out.
MOMABackpack.jpgA little backpack your child can load up with what he wants to play with at the restaurant is another idea. This little one from the MOMA store is cute and also on sale. My kids use their little suitcases (or, in this case, a backpack) to load up what small things they’d like to play with at the table. Often it’s Littlest Pet Shop Pets or a Schleich menagerie.
colorforms.jpgColorforms could make a great at the table quiet activity. I like this set because it’s just the classic shapes not a scene with Spongebob and Patrick. I have nothing against Spongebob, in fact I quote Spongebob at least twice a day. It’s just my kids get bored with those type of sets much faster than they do when they can create things out of shapes, like a robot or a nuclear reactor. Much more imaginative.
zoostickerset.jpgThis set is similar to the color forms, only they allow your child to create scenes using the background and reusable vinyl stickers. My daughter, at 8, is probably a little old for this (maybe the map of the world would appeal) but I see at least 6 sets my son would love, including the dinosaurs.
playdoh.jpgI’m going to make a suggestion now and you are going to gasp. You’re going to say, ‘What kind of a monster are you?’ I keep a one ounce container of play-doh in my purse for waiting rooms and restaurants. Have one for each child, ideally the same color, because you don’t want to start messing around with mixing colors. If your child is very young, try giving her just half the play-doh to play with. If you have older kids, we like to play a game with the play-doh. It’s like charades, you think of a word (probably a noun) and mold your the doh as best you can to illustrate that word. Everyone guesses what you’ve made.
cardrings.jpgI shared these ring flashcards yesterday, but I think these would be a great ‘At The Restaurant Only’ toy for younger kids. Use the alphabet cards to spell out words with your kid, have them arrange the cards by type or color. The ‘Things that Go’ pack would be especially good for that game. With older kids you could play ‘Guess What Animal/Thing/Word/Letter I’m thinking of.’
smallnotebook.jpgI have a small notebook in my purse for writing notes while I’m running around. I have a feeling this tip will work mostly if you’re not the kid’s parent and this is a novelty. But I kept my friend Alice’s little boy busy for almost 30 minutes at the table with my notebook, a pen and Laid Off Dad’s highlighter. Now my notebook has wonderful illustrations of ‘Tornado Boy’ and another guy who fights with a ‘Bim and a Bam’. Maybe get the notebook and only use it in desperate situations so it doesn’t lose it’s novelty factor.
puppycolorplacemat.jpgThese placemats might be better for an at home meal where the kids probably aren’t going to be interested in the adult conversation but still need to be engaged and not bored. You know what happens when kids get bored. They turn into demonic creatures you don’t even know anymore. The front of the placemat has an illustration to be colored with washable markers (and then wiped off for reuse!) and the back is blank and ready for an original work of art. Maybe your child has a ‘Tornado Boy’ he’d like to share.
wipebook.jpgStefania of CityMama pointed me toward these great books. They’re wipe clean activity books with all kinds of subjects like ‘Things That Go‘, ‘Simple Math‘ and ‘Time‘. My kids would be bored with these pretty quickIy, so they’d definitely be something we pulled out only at restaurants or waiting rooms, I think Max would love the puzzles one. I also sort of wish there was a CSS one for me so I could learn to code or something.
learningwheels.jpgThese learning wheels would be great for sitting at the table and learning a little something while your grilled cheese fries. They’re cute to look at, come in lots of different subjects and are just $10. They’d even make a great birthday present to stock up on for those neverending birthday parties that just pop up.
Accordian.jpgOver a year ago I shared a story of eating dinner at a restaurant while a child at the table over blew on a harmonica. When I shared the story I pretty much figured everyone would be as shocked as I was. Do we really need to teach parents that harmonicas aren’t exactly good for kids in a restaurant? But no, someone actually argued I needed to get over myself and my ‘demands’ on society. So I guess, really anything goes in a restaurant. That’s why I think you should order this concertina to keep your child occupied at your next restaurant outing. If people don’t want to be annoyed by kids at restaurants, then maybe they shouldn’t leave their homes ever!
Or you could try maybe being sane and teach your kids how to act in public. Although, I don’t know maybe the world would be a better place if we all played harmonicas whenever we damn well please!
parenthacks2.jpgA final place to find tips for keeping kids occupied at restaurants (especially if you’re dealing with very young children) is Asha’s wonderful Parent Hacks. Great finds like Sandy’s restaurant survival kit (with more ideas for that play-doh I mentioned), or this hack for spoons (make sure to read the comments) and this great hack; “Learn simple origami”. I love this in restaurants and out, in fact I think I’ve got a new baby shower gift idea.

Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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  • kim

    I use the Play-doh one ounce containers with our 28 month old. I keep a few in his diaper bag and the only time they come out is when he is about to lose it in a restaraunt. This is the only time he gets to play with it, so its a big deal and really works. Have an extra or two on hand though because if there are other kids at the table they will want some too! Its also necessary in case the first one lands in someone’s soup.

  • Kim

    P.S. Land of Nod has a set of three of the mini suitcases (3 different sizes) for $19.99.
    Thanks for the idea Melissa. I love this one!

  • Great post! I love the flash cards and learning wheels…my only addition to this is I keep a box/bag of “car/trip/restaurant-only” goodies like this so that when I whip these things out, they seem new, and more likely to keep tham occupied longer. Books, games, stickers, mini-etch-a-sketch, etc…

  • A harmonica?!? You know, it’s amazing what lengths parents will go to humor their “little darling” regardless of the impact on those around them. I used to work as a hostess at a restaurant. We had a mother who would come in late in the afternoon with her 4-5 kids. She was always on her cell phone and her kids ran wild. I intercepted what appeared to be her 4 year-old daughter walking through the busy restaurant carrying her plate, to go sit with other relatives on the other side. Her mother was totally oblivious! ARRRRGHH!
    When my kids were young, it was never an option to get up from the table without adult supervision, period.

  • Melissa! I have been waiting for you to write about this so that I could share the toy that made my husband and me continue to want to go out to dinner with the boys throughout their preschool years. It’s a set of mini-vehicles made of rubber. There’s a train, plane, car, fire engine, and boat, I think. Each vehicle type comes in multiple colors, so the possibilities for playing, sorting, etc. are endless. We LOVED these. You can view them/buy them here. This is a seriously great set.

  • Great Post. We have two items we never leave home without – play food and accessories for my youngest and a travel dinosaur magnet set for my oldest.
    The play food (from Walmart) came in a travel bag and the magnet set (from Barnes & Noble) came in a metal tin, both perfect for storing the items in the pouch behind the drivers seat.

  • Harmonica? At a restaurant? Were the parents Vagabonds? Or is the PC term Hobos? Sounds like they had a little hobo in training.

  • Why oh why did I never think of little cans of Play-Doh? My son loves it, but I hate to play it with him because it makes my hands smell weird. It could be a special restaurant thing! I also want like 12 other things in this post, because toys are fun.

  • makakona

    what neat toys! i wouldn’t ever use them for restaurants, but they’d be killer for roadtrips or just at home. i’m one of those mean moms who doesn’t let them bring anything into restaurants or church or wherever, but we seem to fare okay.
    those vinyl vehicles are killer! thanks, slouching mom!