It was Christmas. He was my first child, and barely a year old. My mother-in-law revealed that our Christmas Eve dinner would be held at Ruth’s Chris. You know, the fancy steak place—knives, everywhere!—that broils its meat on the dishes they serve it on? White tablecloths, crystal stemware? Add to that the fact that it was a party of 12—proper etiquette is on overdrive—and we were committed to a solid three hours of fine dining. Yep. That one. I still have PTSD.

Regardless of the setting, keeping toddlers entertained while you wait for your meal to be served on a rare night out is no small task. So, as a mom of four, here are my tried-and-true methods for making sure a meal out with toddlers isn’t a mission impossible. (And hey, if you need to bust out the iPad sometimes you’ll find no judgment here!)

Kiddie Cocktail Hour

There’s no hangry like a toddler hangry. Take the edge off your tot with a sippy cup full of their favorite juice (or a Shirley Temple!) and a couple of Ziploc bags of their most beloved snacks while waiting for your food to arrive.


Some parents dig crayons to keep kids occupied, but anyone who’s ever spent most of their meal feeling around under a table for the one that rolled away knows they’re sometimes not worth the trouble. Try a stack of magnets instead (or this magnetic blocks toy). They’ll keep your impatient tot busy for longer stretches, and since they stick together, they’re easier to store in one place. Plus, you won’t find them melted to the bottom of your purse this July.

I Spy

This is an oldie but a goodie, and while I Spy might not work if you’re trying to have a conversation with adults at the same time (really, who manages that anyway with toddlers?), it’s a go-to for keeping my younger ones engaged and happy before the chicken nuggies arrive.

Sensory Bags

Tread carefully here, but if you can fill a couple of Ziploc bags with sand, glitter, sequins, or leftover noodles—and add a drop of two of food coloring—you can fill it with water when you get to the restaurant. Just be sure to take extra Ziplocs to double bag your concoction, and toss your sensory bag on your way out the door.

Magic Ink Books

They don’t call these little whiz-bangs magic for nothin’. And when you need to mix it up, Water Wow! books are equally amazing.

Play Dough

Along the same lines of magnets, a bag of play dough will beat crayons every time. If your toddler tires of squishing it around before mealtime and you get desperate, let them build a bowl and mix in sweetener, salt, and pepper (you know they’re playing with them anyway).

Dry-Erase Boards

For older toddlers, nothing beats tic-tac-toe on a dry-erase board, since you’ll be playing about 2,000 games of it before your meal arrives.

A 10-Year-Old

For real. Have you ever dined with a 10-year-old and a toddler? It’s solid gold. Your toddler is entertained, and the 10-year-old doesn’t mind the non-stop attention.

Live Music

If you don’t have a choice in your dining destination (a la Christmas, 2009), this isn’t going to help you. But with a little planning, you can probably find a spot with live music for maximum toddler enjoyment. Just bring hand sanitizer, because I’ve never met a toddler who can dance without serious floor-to-hand contact.

Smart Seating

There are tables; then there are tables made for families. Scout it out when you arrive and note your proximity to a window, distance from the busy kitchen, and, if possible, a patio with an adjacent lawn.


At my house, it’s questionable if we even went out to eat if we don’t have to pick the stickers out of our hair before bedtime once we get home. And the best news is that toddlers aren’t picky. I’ve used excess return labels in a jam.

Make sure to take lots of pics of your tot with their mocktail—and share them with your family and friends near and far—with the Tinybeans app. The secure platform puts parents in total control of who sees and interacts with photos and videos of their kids.

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