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Four Tricks for Surviving Meals on the Road

Flickr user Santee, CC Licensed.

Let’s face it: Even if your kids are good kids, dining out with the brood can be stressful, tiring and, at times, a miserable experience. They might toss food. They might require relatively constant stimulation. They might fail to handle unforeseen delays without initiating the launch sequence for global thermonuclear war.

In most cases, traveling only compounds these problems. Any number of variables such as foreign environment, jetlag and unfamiliar menus could turn a perfectly nice meal into a debacle faster than you can say, “Check please.”

With this in mind—and at the request of a faithful reader—I’ve done some homework and pulled together four foolproof tricks for surviving meals on the road.

Use the tools you’ve got
Tables at some restaurants come standard with trays of sugar packets. Others are adorned with bowls of coffee creamers. Still others feature trinkets such as napkin rings, tiny vases, and candles. Instead of telling your kids these items are off-limits, make them the centerpiece of table-time, green-lighting kids to play away. No, your server probably won’t appreciate this move. But it could buy you time for an appetizer and dessert (which ultimately would net the aforementioned server a bigger tip anyway).

Pack a travel table bag
You can’t rely on restaurant tables to have distractions, so it’s important that you bring your own just in case. In our family, we pack a special travel table bag before every meal. Most of the time, we stuff it with crayons, blank paper, stickers and mini Etch-a-Sketch pads. Depending on where we’re visiting, we might add a cultural element, too: A book, or a particularly detailed paper map. (It’s worth noting that we don’t pack technology; we're of the mindset that device-use at the table is disrespectful to other diners.)

Bring the food to life
Remember in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee-Wee Herman makes an ordinary breakfast of pancakes, strawberries and bacon into the talking Mr. Breakfast? On the road, this strategy works wonders. Not only will the kids love it if you turn their meals into characters, but they’ll also like engaging with sassy silverware, too. On our journeys—no matter where in the world we go—forks are notoriously fresh. It keeps our girls laughing (and also teaches equality in a roundabout way).

Make it storytime
That (often interminable) period of time between ordering and chowing down always goes faster when you’re telling stories. In many families, the parents are the ones who tell the stories, grabbing the proverbial “spotlight” like one might do at a playgroup. In our family, on recent trips we’ve included our toddler as one of the storytellers, giving her the (rarely brief) opportunity to tell us a fanciful tale for a change.

The bottom line: Fight the urge to emphasize food over fuel, and do what you must to get through the meal without incident. New experiences are important while traveling as a family. Meal time doesn’t necessarily have to be one of them.

Did I forget to include something awesome? What are your secrets to surviving road meals while traveling with your kids? Please leave a comment.