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How to Succeed at Screen-Free Meals

Photograph by Twenty20

One afternoon, my dad and I stopped for lunch with my 1-year-old. Almost immediately after I sat her in her high chair, she started complaining and squirming. I gave her a spoon and held a glass of ice water in front of her so she could fish around. She did this contentedly for two minutes before throwing the spoon. My dad took her to the sidewalk to look for doggies. They came back when the food arrived and, as she alternated between asking to get down and smearing avocado on her face, we ate quickly and signaled for the check.

You could see this as a failure, but I considered it a success. For a child, eating a meal in a restaurant requires a complex set of skills: sitting still, using an inside voice, looking people in the eyes and ordering food, and using utensils correctly. Toddlers and little kids need repeated opportunities to practice with all these building blocks as they grow. In the short term, it can look like a mess, but underneath there’s learning going on.

Which is why my phone never left my bag. I’m not uniformly anti-screens, but they do distract kids from learning the skill sets needed in certain moments—in this case, the skills for how to be a good restaurant patron. When babies and little kids sit down to a meal, they’re practicing self-regulation and patience. They’re absorbing social behaviors and etiquette. If they’re distracted by a phone, they don’t get any of that practice.

I’m not uniformly anti-screens, but they do distract kids from learning the skill sets needed in certain moments.

Parents often ask me how to handle restaurants, and my answer is to set a precedent early. Family agreements about meals help immensely as kids grow, so we recommend talking about them even with older babies (yes, they understand, over time). For example:

"At the table, we eat, talk and laugh."

"When the food arrives, we all sit down."

"Toys are parked before meal time." (“Find a good parking spot for that train before we sit.”)

"Phones are parked before meal time." (“Let me pop my phone in my bag before we sit.”)

"We always sit on our bottoms or knees at the table."

"We use an inside voice at the table."

Keep your restaurant outings short and well-timed when kids are very little. Pack notebooks and markers or sticker books, order your food or just a basket of bread when you first sit down, let your toddler wander with you a bit before the food arrives and make a point of saying, “OK, the food is here. Now we all sit!”

Is resorting to a screen if you desperately need it a bad idea? Absolutely not. Is your child likely to ask for that screen again the next time you’re at the table? Very likely, yes. A screen-free meal, even if it’s a short and messy one, is one block in a bigger learning structure. It allows a toddler to practice turn-taking in conversations. It connects us to each other if we share about the day or tell funny stories.

Think of raising good restaurant goers as a marathon, not a sprint. Now that my kids are of school age, we’ve had hundreds of restaurant meals together, and our agreements really worked. We draw or color until the food comes, we all park our screens, we share our highs and lows of the day, and we enjoy each other. Even on the days when someone accidentally swipes a glass off the table or we have to pick up crayons from under a sticky table leg and make a quick exit, I still consider it a success.

(Heather Turgeon, MFT, is co-author of the new book "Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma" (TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House), as well as the popular sleep book "The Happy Sleeper." Based in Los Angeles, she frequently speaks and offers parenting consultations on communication, setting limits with empathy, sleep and more.)

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