I personally believe that dining in a restaurant with your toddler is one of the most challenging tasks as a parent. I remember when Ellie started walking, she would sit for a couple of minutes and would ask to go down from the high chair, just in time when I was about to take my first bite. Then, there were also those instances when they are done eating but you haven’t eaten touched your plate. I realized that it was so much easier when they were infants; you could bring them anywhere with you and they would either just sleep, or eat, or watch you eat. Dining habits change when you have a toddler because developmentally, they are active and like to explore, and so, expecting them to wait until you finish your full course meal (with dessert) is really quite impossible.
However, I think that it can be possible if you keep your child busy. I can still recall our best dining experiences as parents and it was when both our children were really busy even after they were finished eating. They just continue to play while we enjoy our meal. When they were little, our baby bag was not just filled with the usual baby things but we also brought some materials that our babies can play with- a couple of board books; a few play materials (small mirror; a ball; a rattle; a spoon/fork, etc.) and of course, snacks, which kept them focused on their own play activity while we, the parents, have our turn to eat or at times, take turns eating. This was the routine that we started at home, and we carried this routine with us even when we were eating outside our home (in restaurants or at other people’s homes).
Earlier on during my pregnancy, Mike and I decided that we would delay exposing our children to technology/screen media until they were much older. I shared to him the many studies I’ve read upon and observed from my personal experience in teaching children and so we both agreed to be committed on this principle. In retrospect, I’m grateful that we made this decision.
Dr. John Medina’s book, entitled: Brain Rules for Baby: how to raise a smart and happy child from Zero to Five, identified that one of the four brain boosters for a child is talking to your baby- a lot. Dr. Medina revealed that based on a study done to 40 families, “the more parents talk to their children, even in the earlier moments of life, the better their kids’ linguistic abilities become… children whose parents talked positively, richly and regularly to them knew twice as many words as those whose parents talked to them the least.” (p.127). Dr. Medina stressed that it actually takes a real live person to benefit your infant’s brain and not any other forms of screen media. In relation to this, the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines recommending that infants who are 18 months and younger should not be exposed to any digital media while children ages 2 to 5 years old should be allowed to 1 hour per day only. Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, the lead author of the “Children and Adolescents and Digital Media Technical Report” and assistant professor at UCLA, explained that screen time can cause disconnect between parent and child. This is because if the parent’s attention is fixed on his gadgets, then children are deprived of that attention, which is a crucial bonding time for them.
I have always believed that gadgets should not be our immediate solution in order to distract our children during our meal times. I agree that this is the easiest way to get our child’s attention in order that we can continue with whatever we are doing at that moment. Sad to say, we are actually missing the point of why we are sharing meals together and the value behind it. I like what Ruth Anne Hammond said in her book, Respecting Babies (2009), “if stimulation is regularly of the ‘entertainment’ variety, the baby may become a habitually passive recipient who expects always to be entertained.” (p.123). Ruth Anne explains that we want our children to tune in, to be sensitive to what’s going on around him and when we allow this, we are developing within them the habit of paying attention.
I came up with alternative activities that you can do with your baby/toddler when you are in a restaurant. I learned that not all restaurants are child-friendly and so it’s always better to be prepared. Here are some of my suggestions:
- Art materials: Bring a drawing book and a set of crayons with you. Although your child may just doodle at this time, this activity does not only exercise his finger muscles but also encourages creativity on his part. You can also come up with short stories about what you see on his paper, and this will definitely keep him interested all the more. I like the washable crayons and markers because it’s easy to clean during meal times.
- A variety of board books. I usually bring 2-3 small books because they come in handy. You can bring your child’s favorite book together with other books of interest to him. I also try to bring a new book because it makes them curious and keeps them focused for a longer period of time.
- Different Types of Paper: You will be surprised at the many things your child can come up with just by giving them paper. Just a word of caution: give this to older infants who have the least tendency to eat anything they get their hands on. You can let them tear, crumple, roll and even press the paper.
- Manipulatives: There are a lot that you can choose from. These materials can be purchased from the toy store or you can even make one for your child. You can do the lacing beads/stringing beads (where your child will string the beads through the hole); puzzles; and table blocks. I also like the food play toys that your child can cut using a plastic knife/utensil. Materials such as these do not only develop fine motor skills but also develops one’s ability to focus on a given task.
- Stickers: There are so many stickers that you can choose from. Pick the one that interests your child- a cartoon character, a particular animal, or colors/shapes. You can have a sticker book wherein your child can decorate. For younger infants, I usually choose the big stickers while for the older ones, the smaller stickers are good for them.
To tell you frankly, it was never easy at first. There were many times when Mike and I wanted to just take out our phone while we were trying to establish this routine. I’m glad that we supported each other as we took simple steps each day. We are most thankful to God for giving us that extra patience and grace to do this. Now, we see the benefits of what we started 3 years ago with our children. We see how our children are learning to wait more patiently whenever they see us eating, we notice how our youngest, Julia, can sit longer and feed herself, and we observe how Ellie, will ask us to tell her stories while we all finish our food. Small victories but these mean so much to us.
The key is that we knew what was our goal in mind, and this kept us motivated to stick to our commitment. Our desire is that we give value to meal times with our children because we want to preserve this time as the only time when we can be temporarily disconnected from the concerns of the world yet be connected with people who matter to us the most.
As parents, Mike and I want to impart to our children the importance of being present, of listening and conversing with each other (face-to-face), and it pays to start this habit while they are still young.
If you want to read more about this topic:
Check the following references:
Website References: (online version of articles on policy statements)
Hammond, R.A. (2009). Respecting Babies: A new look at Magda Gerber’s RIE approach. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE
Medina, J. (2014). Brain rules for baby: how to raise a smart and happy child from zero to five. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.