I Spy a Waitress

And nine other restaurant sanity-savers.

We all know that bringing kids out to a restaurant can be as stressful as waiting for a time bomb to erupt. But it doesn’t have to be. With a little upfront preparation, your meal can go quite smoothly— from appetizer through dessert.

Before even heading out to the restaurant, be sure to call ahead and see if they take reservations or accept call-ahead seating. If so, do it! There’s nothing worse than having to keep kids amused while waiting for a table, then again while waiting for their food to arrive.

Once you are ready to be seated, there may be the typical debates: booth verses table, booster verses highchair and who sits next to whom. Try to handle these as quickly and judiciously as possible, then settle in to reviewing the menu and deciding what everyone wants to order. If your child wants pasta with sauce on the side, only the carrots in the vegetable medley or some other special food request, go ahead and ask your server if they can be accommodated.

Now, the wait begins, with you most likely poised for a meltdown of some sort. “I’m hungry, Mommy,” “He took my crayon!” “When is our food coming?” “I have to go to the bathroom,” “Stop pushing me!” Rather than playing defense to your kids’ arguments and constant questions, you can take the upper hand, and coach them through their hunger and possible restaurant boredom.

Here’s a list of ten things you can do to make the wait for food a little easier to swallow:

  1. Always bring your own crayons. Even if the restaurant has them, they’ll probably be cheap knock-offs that will break in half as your child frantically tries to scribble the waxy pigment on his paper. If you have more than one child, this is crucial. Pack two of each color in a small ziplock bag, and stick them in your purse. Besides the obvious use of coloring, crayons can serve double-duty as handy game props. Play “guess which hand” with the crayons; ask which two colors can make a third; play “name a food” that is the same color as the crayon you pick.
  2. I Spy. Yes, it’s a classic, but it can be modified in many ways depending on your child’s age. I spy a color, a letter of the alphabet, a word, an object, etc.
  3. Take a tally. What is the most popular shirt color in the restaurant? Are there more men than women? What is the average size family? What is the most popular car in the parking lot?
  4. Best and worst. Have each person share their best and worst thing that happened during the day making sure to problem-solve while validating personal feelings when discussing the “worst.” For younger kids, change this to pick the favorite two things about today.
  5. Be prepared with mini-books. Small lift-the-flaps for tiny tots; mini notepad for kids learning to write; math game cards for older kids. Even better— use these only when in restaurants, so they won’t find them boring from over-use at home.
  6. Games on paper. Use the back of a placemat or some pages from your mini-notebook to play a variety of games. Hangman, tic-tac-toe, dot-to-dot, fill-in-the-blanks with younger kids (e.g., alphabet, number lists, words).
  7. Alphabet games. Everyone can play— name a food starting with the letter A, B, C, etc. Challenge older kids with using the last letter of the previously-named object as their first letter.
  8. Use the menu. Search for certain words or letters; scramble letters to make other words. Ask older kids to choose items to total a certain dollar amount, practicing math skills.
  9. Pack a suitcase to somewhere. Have each person pick a place they want to go, then talk about what they would bring with them in their suitcase.
  10. The final countdown. When your wait time seems almost up, try counting to 20 (or higher) in English, Spanish, German, whatever language you might know!

With any luck, just choosing two or three of these should help pass the time until food arrives, and then you can all enjoy a nice meal out together. And what can be better than that— good food, with no cleanup. Bon Appetite!