School Year’s Resolution 3: No iPhone at the Restaurant Table

Dear Jenny,

Any insight on how to enjoy a restaurant meal with a three year old that doesn’t involve handing over the iPhone? The coloring book is kind of wearing off–and a few weeks ago my family went out for my bday dinner which kinda felt like a flush of $75 down the toilet because we spent most of the dinner telling her to stop standing up on the (red velvet) banquette and eavesdropping on nearby diners. I feel like if we were to hand over our phone, she would be so happily engaged, but then the seal would be broken, and she would ask for the phone all the time — not just at restaurants but anytime anywhere —  and whine for it, and then it would just become that process of saying no all the time. So in a way, I’d rather stay in or have the lame dinner with her than initiate a daily (hourly?) nagging moment, Can I play with your phone?  What do you do? What do your readers do? Is it, as I imagine, a better investment of $150 to dine out and hire a sitter than drop $75 and bring the daughter?


Dear Rory,

I feel for you. I mean, what’s the point of going out to dinner if it means either a) being ignored by your children or b) yelling at them. Unlike many claims we’ve made about parenting before we actually became parents (my favorite: “We will never be a slave to the nap”) we’ve somehow managed to stick with a No-Electronics-at-the-Restaurant policy. In large part this was because early on we discovered that the attention span for one of those little Dover sticker books seemed to correlate almost exactly to the amount of time it takes for a plate of popcorn shrimp to be prepared.  The books come in all themes — firehouse, zoo, airport, bakery — and for my daughters are almost like portable doll houses. I used to buy them by the bucket load and just kept one or two in my bag to pull out as needed. I have other friends who swear number puzzles (where kids match the number on the stickers to numbers on the grid to piece together a puzzle) do the job just as well. But either way, in my experience, the most important thing to remember when rolling out an activity in these kinds of situations is to make it a surprise. I always found that the novelty and the newness of the item is what buys us extra time. That and the imaginary goodwill I am convinced it fosters — Mom, you were so nice to get me a present that I think I’ll behave for the rest of the meal. (If anyone out there has a solution that doesn’t involve bribery, please enlighten.)

Now, I have yet to try these out on the pre-K segment of the population, but my guess is that many young diners would be thrilled to show up at the local Tex-Mex to find one of Marion Deuchars‘ placemats set before them. You know her, right? Well you probably know her even if you don’t know her. She’s the world-famous illustrator whose sketches and handwriting help give Jamie Oliver cookbooks so much of their warmth and homespun appeal. A few years ago, she delighted design nerds the world over when she entered the genre of the oversize, design-minded Doodle Books for kids. Well, anyway, we are all in luck because Deuchars’ latest book in this genre is geared towards the dining population and it’s called Let’s Make Great Placemat Art.  To get an idea of how different and cool it is (no wordsearch and mazes here), check out a few samples below. Stick the pad in your bag before you go out to dinner (you can rip one off at a time) and I’m betting all the diners at the table end up happy.

I might also add that the book costs decidedly less than a babysitter.




PS:  Marion Deuchars was nice enough to offer a free downloadable placemat exclusively to DALS readers. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

PPS. I have some fun giveaways coming up on facebook, so be sure to follow me there if you want in on the action.

This is part of the School Year’s Resolution Series. Please click here for Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and here for Resolution 2 (Master the Weekly Shop). And feel free to request some advice about your own resolutions — jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com. If you have questions for Andy, just let me know and I will forward on to him. 

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So I confess we use the iphone (or ipad) in resturants with our 3 year old all the time. this has not led to constant requests for it, mainly because we nipped that in the bud – with the rule that if he hand it back promptly when requested (or when food arrived), then he didn’t get it again. And stuck to it. Love having alternatives, though!


We don’t have this issue because my daughter is a perfect child and my husband and I are perfect parents. Need I say, *wink*?

On one occasion I handed over the iPhone with Angry Birds. I hated doing it, but we were at a diner and I figured, “meh, it’s just a diner.” I felt queasy about the precedent I was setting and swore I’d never do it again. I’ve been able to live up to that, and when my daughter (now 4) asks for the phone, I change the topic, tell stories, let her tell stories… in other words, my husband and I try to engage her in the roles surrounding the dinner table. Or we just shove the basket of rolls at her. It doesn’t always work, but we try!

Good luck!


I love the placemat book, what a great idea! Coloring or activity books have always worked well for us and our two young boys (7 and 4). Also, games of I spy, if you can stand it.

But mostly, we just talk about the kind of behavior we expect. And, once or twice, my husband or I have had to take a tantrumy, misbehaving toddler out to the car for an attitude adjustment. Once you follow through with consequences, it doesn’t take long for better behavior to set in. I also think it starts with the kind of behavior you expect at home, at your own dinner table. Sit nicely, use good manners, no jumping up and down from the table, no t.v. during dinner, ask to be excused, clear your dishes. Even little kids as young as 2 can handle this in small doses.

Don’t give in to the phone/ipad/portable dvd player. How will your kids ever learn how to behave at the table? Believe me, it’s not all five star restaurants and perfectly behaved children over here, but it’s worth the extra hassle.


Three things worked for us:
1. No sodas anywhere but in a restaurant (so going there becomes a treasured treat)
2. We always talk to our kids and get them engaged in the meal
3. Our son loves bread, so the rolls with butter worked great.

Rachael Starke

We have three girls, now ages 11, 9 and 6. We learned early that we needed to at least mentally separate enjoyable “date” kinds of restaurant experiences from what we cam to see as “educational” restaurant experiences with the girls. IOW, we knew walking in to a restaurant with the girls that it was likely going to be more about training them, at their various ages, about what kind of behavior would guarantee a return trip, instead of a trip to the car and a guaranteed early bed time! The time we invested in going to “practice” restaurants was really really worth it.

The best time passers we ever found are called Wikki Stix. (PF Changs gives them to kids). They’re these tacky pipe cleaners you can make into all kinds of shapes and creatures. They’re really inexpensive, they fit in any purse, and they cover the time it takes for the appetizers to come easily. Even for impatient grownups. 🙂

But the placemat book is genius. I love the Pasta one! Seems like the perfect solution for upcoming all-family holiday dinners.


We use the iPad as a reward at restaurants. Our daughter has to be on good behavior in the beginning of the meal and then eat well, including all of her veggies. Once she is done, which is usually well before the adults are done, she can use the iPad for books, games, or more often, to stream an educational (usually) program on Netflix or PBSkids. Then the adults can finish our meals, wine, and conversation in a leisurely manner. It works well for us.


This is great advice. Thank you! I just ordered some of those little Dover sticker books. I keep “I spy” cards in my purse but those are getting old.


What works for us: as soon as we are settled & have ordered, one adult goes with the kiddo on an “adventure” to check out the restaurant, peek in the kitchen, explore, etc. It gives the other adult a chance to relax in a moment of quiet. That also gets a lot of the wiggles out of the kiddo. They come back with plenty of time for “family time” before the meal arrives.

There are also lots of appropriate restaurant games that involve the whole family. I have a book called “Fun on the Run” that has a whole section on restaurant games. An example, one person starts a drawing on the paper menu, then passes it to the next person who continues it. Has variations where you don’t get to see what the previous person drew. To me, this is great because the point of going to a restaurant is to foster time & interaction together.

Another strategy is to have a list of conversation starters. We do “Mad, Sad, Glad” at home every day (each person must tell what made them mad, sad, and glad during the day).

My final thought is that it’s important to remember that going out to dinner should be enjoyable for the child, too. They aren’t mini adults. Do something everyone can participate & enjoy.


I don’t really have a problem handing over the phone at a restaurant – the only rule is that it has to be handed back immediately upon request (usually when the food comes). I don’t see a whole lot of difference between a phone/ipod and a coloring book, since both options mean the child is not engaged in conversation with the rest of the table, he is doing his own thing and not bothering everyone else. Frankly that’s often our goal by dinnertime. The placemats are really cute and are a great idea for preschool-age kids. I like to go over the menu with my son and help him try to figure out what he’d like to eat, and I can often get him to venture outside the kids menu (especially when there isn’t one). He sometimes asks questions about the different foods and what the dishes are, etc. We often get appetizers and let him taste some, that’s helpful also.

I will say that for a dinner that’s going to cost a lot of money, it’s worth a little more for a sitter. If I’m going to bring my son and not really fully enjoy and taste my food without having to worry about someone else and possible complaints about the food, I’m going to go someplace where it doesn’t cost a lot. This doesn’t mean a chain restaurant necessarily, but there’s a lot between a Chili’s and a fancy restaurant.


I often fold the paper kids menu into an origami “cootie catcher” or an inflatable balloon. My daughter can play with it for the rest of the meal.


I always carry a stash of stuff with me. Coloring books sometimes work, but not always. I bring other small books, matchbox car or two, magnet books, or sticker books, or my personal favorite – PuzzleBuzz magazines. They’re by Highlights, targeted towards the little ones (probably 3-4 and up). They also make sticker ones that are especially good for my 3-year-old. These work wonders. After that, yes of course we watch trucks if we’re able to see outside, or we make shapes from straws (get a couple little straws from the bar and a couple big ones…they can work on fine motor skills forEVER. seriously). Oooh and dot-to-dot games – you can even make these up yourself and keep them occupied. Find things your kid likes, mix it up, keep things in your bag that only get pulled out in restaurants, and keep trying! It’s totally worth doing.

As for getting the husband off the iPhone…you got me. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. 😉


We’ve used a lot of the ideas listed about, but when I’m really on my game, I love playing “pass the story.” Each person adds a sentence (or less, esp when they’re young) to the story. I did a lot more guiding when they we’re little and the kids would fill in a noun here, a phrase or sentence there (Me: Once upon a time there was a very, purple… Kid: princess Me: who really liked….). I miss that. We’ll have to bust that out at the next restaurant dinner. Along with some new placemats!


Love this and pretty much ran to Amazon to buy my son 10 of those magical sticker books. We’ve succumbed to the iPhone demands at the table (as previously, we simply couldn’t go to restaurants without apologizing our way out the door with barely eaten meals in take-out containers) and are eager for other solutions. Thank you!


Our three year old loves the wikki stix too. We also try to make sure we only take them to restaurants that have lots to talk about (ocean views, hustle and bustle, nothing too quiet or grown-up oriented) and where the service is reliably fast and friendly … our little ones do pretty well as long as we are focused on them and not dragging the meal out. For dinners out with friends who also have kids, we try to pick restaurants with outdoor seating and -best of all – gardens or places where the kids can run around relatively supervised while we wait for our food.

There is also a fine line not to be crossed: they must be hungry enough to be interested in food and committed to eating, but not so hungry that they lose it and start pitching fits. Snacks, sticker books, little cars, and a deck of cards are good to have on hand.

On the airplane, we do hand over our iPhones. In fact, my husband is getting a 5 and we plan to keep his 4 charged and ready, just to have an ‘extra’ for Monkey Preschool Lunchbox 😉


My 10 and 8 year olds saved their birthday money and allowance for almost a year, did yard work and odd jobs for neighbors and grandparents, and held lemonade stands in order to save enough money to buy their own iPods. My 6 year old inherited my husband’s iphone 3. When we go out to dinner, we pull them out freely with not a single trace of guilt. After all, we are keeping them engaged during all those family dinners at home, which happen far more frequently than dinners out. Once the food arrives, they are expected to put them away and join in the dinner conversation.


My mom always kept a notebook in her purse & would let me & my brother draw in it at restaurants, but it wasn’t out of bribery, it was more because we were bored and liked to draw. My parents had a very simple technique for getting us to behave in public which was flat out telling us that being out to dinner or wherever was a privilege & if we misbehaved we would have to stay home next time. This was also in the 80s though, so the few times that we did act up in public, they would make us go sit in the car. I’m pretty sure locking your kids in the car is frowned upon today, but you could give it a shot ;D


Our favorite restaurant at the beach (shout out The Donut Hole in Destin, FL) has little caddies of individual jellies that entertain and delight to no end. Take the jelly out. Put the jelly back. It’s just too much fun apparently if you’re under 5!
I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?

Lisa Hathaway

I bookmarked all these ideas for later use/reference. My daughter’s only 2 months, so we have yet to venture into the restaurant arena. 🙂 I love all things DALS!

I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?

Darby Bayly

You rock my family dinner socks! I love this blog and I yap about it to my friends ad nauseum. I read your newsletter today. Do I win Placemat Art?


Always love your ideas & love your recipes/blog.

“I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?”


I love your blog and appreciate our family dinners. It is nice to hear how everyone else celebrates the little bit of time families can sit down together these days. When we are out to dinner we have started playing tic, tac, toe, and taking turns drawing pictures to see what we create. “I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?”


Sometimes it’s useful to think about the restaurant experience in phases:

Phase one: waiting for food — this is the hardest for the little ones, who are hungry and don’t have practice from home (because typically you call them to the table when dinner is already done). Any distraction technique (whether electronic or paper or environmental) can be quite useful here. You also might consider calling in an appetizer on your way to the restaurant so it arrives soon after being seated. Something small so they don’t ruin their appetite (“ok, we get one shrimp each”).

Phase two: food and waiting for everyone to finish — this can be mitigated by drawing the kid’s part of the meal out with different courses (order apps in advance, ask the waitress to bring the kids meal in two phases — get a second plate and share your salad course). In restaurants they often make the mistake of bringing the child their entire meal right at the start, so they’re done quick and then bothersome and antsy while you are still dealing with the soup course. No electronics or toys, engage them in the discussion and expect good manners as a given.

Phase three — lingering. Chatting with coffee is so relaxing for adults and so stressful for kids. Make it easier for them to cope with by offering dessert and maybe a second small drink (milk steamers are special and calming too). This would obviously be predicated on them having behaved during the meal, but we usually modify the ‘eat everything to get dessert’ rule because restaurants sometimes just give too much food to make that fair or logical.

We also have a preference for family-owned delis and ethnic restaurants because they are more kid tolerant overall, but still have more interesting food than TGIFridays. Even if they don’t have kids’ menus, they will usually make up a small plate of something — not your usual beige platter of deep fried gunk.


I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art? We use good old crayons and paper and conversation. Works much of the time. I do remember sneaking in snacks when my kids were really small. I do not use my iPhone at the table. I think that might help a bit as well.


“I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?”

What a great idea! A fingerprint art book is just about to be released too, looks good!


A box of bandaids, kept in a little bag saved for special restaurant time, is a great attention keeper. The kids always loved peeling back the paper, then the little tabs, then sticking them on to themselves….it lasts for a while and seems sort of special to be allowed to have bandaids when there is no boo-boo making things less fun. We also did the cooperative art drawing activity….”let’s take turns making a face” then mom or dad draws an eye, child draws what they want, back to mom or dad, etc. Collaborative art. Hopefully, all this, combined with snacking or soup, would pass the time.


We don’t eat out much but when we do it’s usually at restaurants that have an arcade. 🙂

“I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?”


My boys are 6 & 3. We rarely go out to eat so when we do they are excited. I feel like we are just coming into a new season where the kids will stay seated, my youngest doesn’t scream or cry. I always carry a small notebook and have pens and/or crayons in my purse. This usually works. I don’t like to let them use my phone for entertainment. I like to save that for trips to the grocery store with my three year old.
I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?


Any tips on how to handle my 73 year old mother who is by far the worst offender when it comes to iPhone etiquette? Subtle hints have not worked.

I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?


I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?

Love this post – already went to check out the little books on Amazon!


I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?

I totally agree about having surprise novelties. I pick up little things from the dollar section at Target and stash them in our bag until needed. Cheers!


when my kids were a little older (4 and up) I had a couple of very small games we often pulled out while waiting for dinner. Pass the Pigs is fun for a variety of ages and packs really small in a purse. We had a dice/chips game called “Left/Right/Center” for a while, and also a dice game a little like Yahtzee that was just the dice (can’t remember what it was called). Might get a little too enthusiastic for some restaurant venues, but the nice part is the games generally engage all of us around the table and help make a meal out special.


while i do not in any way condone using electronic devices in restaurants…let me just say that my nephew (now 28) was addicted to his gameboy when young. i remember cringing and shaking my head in dismay when his parents would let him play with it throughout a restaurant meal. he is now a very successful abstract painter – it didn’t stunt his creativity at all. he dines out with great manners, reads lots of books, etc. sometimes all of our worries are for naught, you know? if you had told me when he was 9 that he would be who he is now, making a living with his imagination, a world class traveler dining with famous artists on regular basis, i would not have believed you! he also now hates tv. go figure.

Michele Meyerhoff

I read your newsletter. Do I win Placemat Art?
Ps I love your blog, your books, and especially the photos! And the cocktails! We drank Dark and Stormies on our last family trip and it was thanks to you!


We have two girls, 6 & 2, and I keep a special bag in the closet called The Restaurant Bag. I’ve collected items for the years and I switch up the bag once in a while so it’s fresh and novel. The items include special coloring books (ie: the Barbie book that is only for restaurants), magnetic boards, reusuable sticker kits, special marker bags (those Crayola fip-top were the best because we never had to climb on the gross floor for a marker cap), reading books that only come out at restaurants, tiny toy telephones (that can’t be heard by other diners), small stencils and finger puppets (which we all tell part of a story). Obviously, I don’t carry ALL this stuff but I try to switch it up make sure we’re prepared enough so we don’t have to pull out an iphone.

Like the other reader stated, we’ve come to recognize that dinner with the girls is a little more work because we have to constantly interact rather than relax on a date night. The joy is that you are taking the time to interact with your kids. But, all this work is just like other parenting work and you’re helping your kids grow and learn manners in a restaurant.

Btw, my goodies also double for the airplane. And I ALWAYS bring 3 small items wrapped in tissue that they get to open once the tray tables can be put down.



I’m coming late to this conversation, but I’ve just discovered your site – and I think it’s wonderful. What a great job you’ve done, Jenny!

Having raised two active boys into their late teens, I’ve had tons of experience in restaurants and feel for you younger gals juggling the little ones and the stress that can arise sometimes in those situations. All the work you put into them now will pay off a thousand fold later!

I do not say any of this to brag in any way, I’m just very satisfied that we followed good advice we were given as new parents and we now have two young gentlemen who have the confidence of knowing how to behave in public situations.

Firstly, we would go out to dinner early. Having a child wait for 60-90 minutes before dinner makes for a disaster of an evening. All these activities are wonderful, especially sticker books! A quiet casual stroll around the restaurant helps enormously and also opens your child’s eyes to what goes on there.

When your kid acts like a cretin, do not ever hesitate to haul his or her behind out of the restaurant. You won’t have to do it many times, trust me. One obnoxious three year old can ruin a lovely evening for many, but being tucked under Dad’s arm and quickly removed to the parking lot for a few minutes usually sets their priorities straight. We rarely had to do it because it worked so well. (And the same goes for church, too!) We have had many folks over the years compliment us on the behavior of the boys. And twice, we had a hostess and another diner thank us for having the guts to discipline our kids.

My kids are very far from perfect (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, LOL) and have tested us a million times over the years. The restaurant situation feels like a parenting test – with an audience! Some people feel that you’re stifling your child if you don’t let them run around. Not true! There’s a time and place for it and dinner hour isn’t one of them. You’re equipping your child with the behavioral skills he/she needs for success in many situations, not just dining out.

Good luck to my fellow moms and keep up the good work!