Don't banish fidgety kids to the corner! Try these smart tactics―from magic tricks to waiter service―to keep them engaged.
The Cherette family enjoying dinner together
Credit: Coral Von Zumwalt

Provide a distraction. “From about age five, kids should be ready to sit through the entire meal,” says 2008 Idaho Teacher of the Year and a 24-year teaching veteran Carol Scholz, but they can still use a little help making it to the end. “Have a few quiet activities ready in case they get antsy,” she suggests. Stow project bags with paper, crayons, and stickers under their chairs to pull out when boredom strikes.

Use bribes. “Put a prize, like a whoopee cushion or a pad of Mad Libs, out on the counter and tell the kids that whoever can sit politely at the table the longest wins,” says John Heald, a senior cruise director for Carnival Cruise Lines. “At the end of the meal, surprise them and give every person a prize.”

Make the kids’ table cool. “Putting a teen with the younger children helps keep things under control and makes them feel included instead of shunned,” says Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated advice column Ask Amy, who admits to paying young-adult chaperones $20, “so sitting with the little ones doesn’t feel like a punishment.” To make your teenager's job a bit easier, arm her with these fun conversation starters for when the kids’ chatter lags.

Ask them to put on a show. “We taught our kids a few magic tricks, which they perform at the beginning of the meal and again before dessert,” says Sally Swift. “They love the attention, and it gives them an incentive to sit at the table.” Invite them to get creative and put on a skit, too.

Get them involved. “I press my kids into service, which makes them feel hugely important,” says Swift. They can toss the salad, carry around the bread basket, and help clear the table (get more great advice on cooking with kids). Older children can even pour the drinks.