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 table cloths, crystal stemware? Add to that, it was a party of 12—proper etiquette is on overdrive—and 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 on your meal to be served when you catch a break and get a night out is no small task. So, as a mom of four, here are my tried-and-true methods of making sure a meal out is not a mission impossible when you have toddlers in tow.

Kiddie Cocktail Hour
There’s no hangry like a toddler hangry. Take the edge off your toddler with a sippy cup of her favorite juice and a couple of Ziploc bags of her most loved snacks while you’re waiting on your food to arrive.

Some parents dig crayons for keeping 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. 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 it 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 is definitely 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 add water when you get to the restaurant. Just be sure to take extra Ziplocs to double bag your concoction, and toss it on your way out the door.

Magic Ink Books
They don’t call these little whiz-bangs magic for nothin’.

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 keep in mind your proximity to a window, distance from the busy kitchen, and if at all 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.

—Shelley Massey

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