There are few things more terrifying than your child having a meltdown in a restaurant, or juice tipping onto an immaculately clean tablecloth, or food crumbs scattering across the floor, or cutlery being used as musical instruments.
For many, mealtime is a social affair. While we eat, we encourage talking as a family sans extra entertainment – at least for awhile! It’s often harder with younger children though, and we ourselves are currently balancing both.
Over the years of taking our son out to eat with us, we’ve tried a variety of things without immediately succumbing to screen time and have learned what works for us. Don’t mistake me for being against devices, but my choice is to always offer other options to keep our tyke a happy camper, which translates to us having a pleasant night out. Depending on what age your child is, here are some of tried-and-tested basics when dinner is a longer event.
1. Ice cube sensory exploration
Okay, so I jazzed up the name of the game but this is an easy start for young kids who can sit on their own in a high chair. All you need is a bowl and a couple of ice chips, and let them have a go at it. You’ll be surprised at how entertained toddlers are with this simple idea and the only real mess it creates is a negligible puddle of water. Always keep an eye on them though as there will likely be tiny fingers trying to push those deliciously cold ice cubes into their mouths.
2. The toy box
Most moms have essentials faithfully tucked into their totes – like Mary Poppins’ magic bag – and pull out just the right thing when it’s needed. Next to the sanitiser, behind the pack of wet wipes and wedged between my purse and lipstick, I always have a toy or two in the event my son gets restless (and yes, he often does).
Truck or car, doll or teddy bear, teething ring or blocks – it often doesn’t matter too much what your child will take. I reckon if kids have something to play with, they’ll keep themselves happily busy.
3. Blank paper, pencils and crayons
An oldie but a goodie. While many restaurants offer a colouring sheet and colour pencils, not all do. So bring along a few bright crayons/colour pencils, blank pieces of paper or a notepad – it will help amuse young doodlers. Up the ante by playing games to let them by trying something new whilst they scribble and scrawl. I’m not fussed that my son’s coloured beyond the lines or that he’s drawn his dad and I to resemble strange spider-like creatures; my glee is that he’s putting a nib down to paper and creating. Nowadays we’re up to playing Tic Tac Toe, The Dot Game or Hangman. Make it up, it’s part of the fun!
4. Magic bag of tricks
Admittedly, there’s only so long you can race a Hotwheels car between a plate, glass and spoon before everyone at the table starts getting edgy. A small bag packed with selected favourites are a winner. I usually make suggestions on what to take, Sachin often chooses otherwise and we meet in the middle. My rules are easy – not everything in the playroom gets to go and he has to be responsible for his toys. Deciding a finite number of things helps him (and us!) keep track of the toys so that hopefully all of them make it back home.
Along with preferred toys, it sometimes helps to pass restaurant waiting time with a book on hand. Let your tot select a book or two and off you go. With toddlers, you’re obviously going to be reading for them but don’t underestimate the power of an exciting book to keep their attention focused and books with flaps to lift are great for this. Those who can read and love to will be content to keep the pages turning.
6. I Spy, The Rhyming Game and Spelling Bee
Versatility is key! With younger toddlers, try playing I Spy using colours (“I spy with my little eye… something that’s yellow”) or let preschoolers play it the regular way and use letters to guess the objects you’ve secretly selected. Another favourite is to take turns coming up with words that rhyme or to challenge the rest of the group to a spelling quiz.
7. Building blocks and Lego
Now that Sachin is older and a huge Lego fan, we sometimes pack Lego to build while we’re out. I get a bit nervous about tiny pieces going missing so we stick all the bits into a tupperware and he pulls them out as he builds instead of spilling the whole lot out onto the table immediately. It’s been a winner and keeps the boy cheerfully occupied for a fair while. Other building/ connecting games that are easy to transport work like a charm too.
We’ve had a few tough meals but so many more positive experiences. I feel if you expose kids to a new event and teach them what to expect, how to adapt and behave with a side of good manners, over time they’ll get it and fingers crossed, will become fine little diners.
Annabelle Josef is a girl from KL who married the best guy she knows and lives with him and their two little folk in the neighbouring red dot of Singapore. She runs a juggling act of school runs, swim classes, play dates and diaper changes, absolutely loves to travel and one day aims to complete a full marathon. Between one trip and the next, she is a freelance writer, amateur photographer and is earning her chops as a Lego master builder.