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Dining out in peace - with kids

Dining out with kids can be challenging. It requires manners, patience and self-control, all character traits that are under development for many kids. Young kids, in particular, may find it difficult to sit for long periods of time.

Add to that the ambient noise of a restaurant, which can be distracting to little ears, and you've got a recipe for disaster. We've all witnessed the scene. Kids standing in booths, throwing things around, talking in outside voices. It detracts from everyone's experience, and can't be fun for the kids, the parents or the neighboring tables.

There's hope, and while it may not create a picture-perfect scene every time, it's a great tool to have in your Mom Bag of Tricks. This is one of my all-time favorite tips for moms, and I have to credit my mother-in-law, aka "Heloise''/Marcia, Mom Since 1963, for the idea. When our tweenage son was 2, I couldn't understand why he couldn't sit still in restaurants. My husband and I, new to the "we're a party of three'' routine, assumed we could continue our dining-out lifestyle in stride. After many failed attempts at peaceful dinner outings, I was sure something was awry. I even asked an expert about this, and she assured me it was out of many kids' abilities to sit still for 90 minutes in an adult environment, and that the only problem was our unrealistic expectations.

Still, and I know you can picture this, sprinting through a restaurant after your feisty toddler is hardly a sport any parent would enjoy. I was convinced we'd never make it to any restaurant more than once -- or, that we'd need to go in disguise so they wouldn't remember the kid who ran around the restaurant, shrieked from time to time and emptied sugar packets like it was a carnival game. Marcia suggested a "restaurant bag'' complete with small noiseless but interesting toys, arts and crafts and anything fun to keep little hands busy.

It worked (and continues to work with kids of all ages) like a charm and gives us much needed dining time outside of our kitchen. I try to reserve these toys for restaurants only, and to change the items from time to time to keep them special and unique. Craft stores are great for stocking "magic ink'' or small water paint kits. Other ideas include creating and copying sheets of tic-tac-toe, hangman or dots.

You'd also be shocked at the value you can find at your local Dollar Store for little trinkets & restaurant diversions -- it's like a kids' wonderland as they race up and down the aisles with a whole DOLLAR! And this works for kids of all ages -- the toys just get a little more electronic as the kids get older.

Once your kids expect the restaurant bag and you've forgotten it for some reason, it's like forgetting your passport on an international trip. I suggest keeping it in the trunk of your car so it's always there, and do rotate or refresh the contents from time to time. I also include some small electronic toys, but our kids know the rule -- volume off!

The restaurant bag buys our kids some fun and distraction, and is an on-call babysitter that allows our family to dine out without the worry of sprinting between tables. And on occasion, it even buys us some adult conversation, all for a dollar or so!

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