19 Mar Dinner-tainment: How to Keep Little Ones Occupied
As a writer, it is often suggested that I ‘write what I know’. However, in all fairness to the age ranges my boys have passed through or have yet to enter, I want to include some posts about these time-frames. Today’s post will focus on the toddler years and then the next will be about the early teen – high school years.
While I have done my best to let go of the struggles I had during early motherhood, I am able to look back on some of the craziness with a tinge of nostalgia. Believe me, it wasn’t all bad. Even though some days it felt interminably awful, I learned a few things along the way. Below are listed my coping mechanisms when taking my boys out to dinner when they were very small. As a stay-at-home mom I needed the outings on the weekends. It was my chance to actually shower and be out in the world. As a lovely added bonus, I didn’t have to cook! I hope that you find one or more these suggestions helpful.
Set aside some rarely used toys and books for outings. You might consider buying inexpensive new books and toys to introduce on the occasion you decide to dine out. Dollar bins or swapping toys with another mom are great resources to help you stock up before your outing. Novelty is a beautiful thing for capturing a toddler’s attention. Have your diaper bag packed with lots of options.
The pacing of restaurants rarely aligns with the wants and desires of a cranky two-year old. My biggest coping technique was to slowly give my boys a small snack before meals arrived. I would place only one cheerio/cracker/whatever at a time on their place-mat which helped drag out the process. It also allowed them some leftover space in their stomachs for when the food finally arrived. That way I still had hope of distracting them with their entrees while I hopefully had a chance to eat some of mine.
Table Props are Your Friend
Most restaurants offer crayons and something to color, this is helpful but brace yourself, you are going to have to get involved in the creative process. Coloring with your kiddo is a wonderful way to keep them content, but it does make it harder to enjoy an actual adult conversation. This is when you survey your table for more novel items to entertain. Straws, coasters, the looped napkin holder made from paper, a flip menu showing drinks and desserts and any and all safely moveable objects that do not cause a hazard to your kid (knives are not an option for obvious reasons) will get the job done. Flip menus were a particular favorite of my boys.
Make It a Team Effort
Enlist your table-mates to color, read, play and distract your restless kid. Sometimes a new face helps them regain their composure as you slowly start to lose yours. Take turns getting up from the table and explore. If the weather is nice, take them outside and let them stretch their legs. Return to the table only when food has arrived. Experience has taught me when you leave a table with a feisty little person, they are rarely compliant when asked to return. If food is there, it makes the bribery, I mean, transition back to seating easier.
Know When to Fold
There are times when you go through your checklist of coping and you hit rock bottom. That is okay. That is a normal part of dining out with small kids. Chalk it up to an off day and get your food boxed up to go. It’s still a win because you left your house and had a change of scenery. Any attempt out is a victory.
The truth of the matter is, there were long stretches I didn’t take my boys many places. They were simply too difficult to manage out in the world. We stopped going to the library for quite a while and avoided the mall altogether. You can read about my brave attempt to reintroduce them to the simple wonders of the mall here:
Every stage has its wonders and its challenge. The only certainty about these stages is that they will change. When we are in the muck of a stage it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is there. I promise you. I am living proof you can survive the terrible twos and beyond with your kids.
I wish you well on your dining adventures.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent