Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dining Out With the Pre-Plate Crowd: Table Topper, Tiny Diner, and Doodle Diner

We eat out often, so we've had lots of time to evaluate different dining gear.

In an earlier review, we covered portable high chairs and mentioned briefly our use of the Buggy Bagg as a high chair cover. While we still have a lot to say about seating, we'll save that for another post and focus exclusively on portable placemat-type dining solutions.

First, let me brief the uninitiated on why older infants and toddlers might need placemat solutions in a world that provides plates and utensils. Many young tikes go through a "mad bomber" phase which wreaks havoc on plates, bowls, and flooring. Also, during the early introduction of self-feeding, children only get a tiny percentage of food into their mouths. The rest is smeared in wide swaths around their dining area, clothing, and person. If you are lucky, the food doesn't get on you. Don't count on this however; few adults are that lucky. Plus, you eventually will have to pick the tot up. I strongly recommend tomato sauce colored or vinyl garments for adult caregivers through this charming developmental phase.

Your older infant may also go through a chipmunk-like food-stuffing stage where you cannot trust them to take normal sized bites of any food. In order to prevent choking, you will find yourself rationing out ridiculously small portions one at a time. If you become inattentive at any point when the plate is empty, it readily becomes a projectile for any mildly imaginative youngster.

We limited plate availability for Ranger. When you remove the dishes, the most obvious approach is to put the food directly on the table. Setting aside the sanitary considerations regarding this method, this approach is not positively received in restaurants with wait staff. They have seen tots and food before, and they know the odds are great that they will clean up a big a mess after you leave the restaurant.

Our first solution to this dilemma was the reusable TinyDiner Portable Placemat by Kiddopotamus . This flexible placemat is free of PVC, latex, and phthalates. It has 5 suction cups that stick it to the table. This works great with bare or glass top tables, but is completely ineffective when dealing with cloth tablecloths and will bond permanently to paper ones. We really liked the TinyDiner, especially its trough-like pocket at the table's edge. It's amazing how much food this pocket saved from the floor and/or Ranger's lap.

The TinyDiner cleans well with soap and water, but it is prone to staining from tomato based sauces. We'd typically wipe it off after use with a wipe or paper napkin (to remove larger food particles and sauces), roll the mat portion into the pocket and wash it upon arriving home (if we remembered). The rolled cylinder had a pretty big footprint in our diaper bag.

Our difficulties with regular use of the TinyDiner were primarily in the category of user error:
  • Often we'd forget it in its dirty state in the car and not have a clean one available when we needed it,
  • Or we'd clean it and leave it on the drying rack at home,
  • Or we'd celan it, roll it up, and then accidentally leave it at home or in a distant vehicle.
The suction cups could get somewhat deformed if folded in an irregular position for a prolonged period. This wasn't a big deal as they could be molded back by hand. Also the suction cups don't all have to work for the mat to stay on the table. The mat gets more flexible when warm, and can get (temporarily) a tacky feel when heated. I noticed this after leaving it in the car on hot days.

We like this mat, but we weren't able to keep track of it. Ranger eventually started pulling it loose just to hear the little suction cups pop.

So, I bought our first disposable solution, Table Topper made by Neat Solutions: Essentials for Children.
Licensed characters aren't well received in our family. I didn't love the Dora the Explorer (though many families might view that as added value) Table Toppers available at Target despite their attached coupon. Target only carried Dora and the nearby Babies R Us only carried Sesame Street ones in a completely unnecessary hard plastic travel case, so I ended up buying Dora.

Ranger loves the Dora design and was instantly captivated. He pointed at different things and chattered his observations. When Jim counted the flowers outloud, Ranger begged for him to do it again. We counted all the labeled countables (frogs, flowers, ball, etc.) and then we plunged into the unlabeled countables (eyes and arms, etc.). He was hooked. I couldn't believe it. This happened every time we used the Dora Table Toppers. I don't know what subtle educational genius designed this mat, but it is really captivating to the young mind.

There are two adhesive strips with pull-off backing that run parallel to the top and bottom edges of the mat. The backing paper is white (bear with me, this will be relevant) and easy to see and remove. At the end of the meal, the Table Topper's adhesive left NO MARK or RESIDUE on the tables we've used and could be rolled up very small to be thrown away.

The thin plastic placemats are one time use only (because they adhere to the table or tablecloth). I don't like disposable products on the whole, but if you have to use them, these are relatively small. So small in fact, that I often easily carried 3 or 4 of them in a pocket in my tiny diaper bag.

Except for the environmental implications of a disposable placemat and the use of licensed characters (who we called "little girl, "monkey," and "bandicoot"), the Table Topper seemed to meet our needs.

[ASIDE: Chick-Fil-A has started offering Chick-Fil-A branded Table Toppers to customers eating in their restaurants. If you want to try a Table Topper for free, this is a great way to do it.]

I found the DoodleDiner, Kiddopotamus' disposable answer to the TinyDiner and the Table Topper, at Meijer when traveling. When I found it, I thought half of my qualms with the Table Topper had been answered.
The DoodleDiner offers educational patterns without licensed characters. Ooooh, my heart went pitter-pat. I bought a 20-pack at Meijer and couldn't wait to use them. At the next opportunity, I pulled one from my bag- almost gleefully. It took me longer to remove the backing for the adhesive strips because they are clear with a little white arrow sticker attached to the top which is bizarre. Imagine a directional arrow on the adhesive backing for a sticker. It seems to suggest something different than a regular peel and stick action. Strangely enough, it offers NO VALUE which is baffling. I didn't like the clear backing and weird, removable arrow stickers.

When I stuck the DoodleDiner in front of Ranger I expected a big response, but he almost flatlined with disinterest. "Look at the ducky." (He loves duckies.) Nothing. He immediately started pulling at the edges.

I unearthed some crayons from the diaper bag, so he could partake of the DoodleDiner's other claim to fame- doodlability. The dark pattern of one of the DoodleDiners obscured both light and dark crayon drawing to invisibility, while the paler DoodleDiner showed a very minimal amount of doodlage with dark crayons. Ranger and I were both underwhelmed.

When we finished our meal, I pulled off the DoodleDiner. Some of the adhesive remained on the table. Not ideal, but still less messy than an infant eating directly from the bare tabletop. This adhesive loss occurred in varying degrees with the other DoodleDiners placemats in that package. One even left an entire adhesive strip on the glass tabletop. That was a pain to clean up.

  • Table Topper is our family's favorite solution. We're not thrilled about using anything disposable so this is an uneasy compromise (we use cloth shopping bags and old school razors that only take blades). None the less the Table Topper works best for our range of toddler dining out needs, limited diaper bag space, and our forgetful natures. It works on cloth tablecloths as well as hard surfaces. Its patterns (though licensed characters) were carefully designed by an evil genius who knows how to keep kids captivated. This is a premium product.
  • TinyDiner is the best for any budget and the environment because it is reusable. It works best with the youngest new eaters. It's handier when you're already carrying around a giant bag, but not nearly as convenient when you transition into something smaller. It has a large footprint and needs to be washed after most, if not all, uses. It cannot be used on cloth or paper tablecloths with any effectiveness. Its trough-like pocket is a great feature.
  • DoodleDiner, we wanted to love you. The idea of crayon drawings, educational designs, and no licensed characters made me really pleased. The patterns didn't capture our son's attention (they seem to be aimed for an older audience than would use the placemats) and the crayon drawing option just don't work. The adhesive residue on tables proved embarrassing and frustrating. The adhesive backing strips are confusing and hard to see. The Doodle Diners are better than no placemat, but they seem less carefully designed than the Table Topper.
Ranger (at 21 months) is getting to the point where he can effectively operate utensils and dishes, so we are now phasing out the regular use of portable placemats. We used the TinyDiner with success for the first months of self-feeding and since have purchased two 20-packs of Table Toppers and one 20-pack of Doodle Diners. We share these disposables with friends and family when dining out, so a single package can last for a long time with just one family.

One of the best features of all of these placemat solutions, is the happy response you can expect from wait staff. And you can also expect questions from other diners on where you found such a useful item.

This review is the independent opinion of Baby Toolkit has no relationship with and has not received any compensation from Kiddopatomus or Neat Solutions: Essentials for Children.


Anonymous said...

One Step Ahead sells the Table Toppers without licensed characters. I liked them but used sparingly with Noah (now 2!) for the reasons you mentioned, disposable, etc. That said it was great to have on hand for certain situations/locales. Now that he's into coloring we usually have some type of paper under/around his meal anyway, and he is not as messy as he used to be (unless eating applesauce/yogurt, which is unlikely at a restaurant).

ezra said...

Have you tried the cabinet liners? I buy one roll cut them up in desired size (I make really big ones). They fold like cloth and I throw them in the washer. I like the squishy ones that has a sticky feel to it.

adrienne said...


You are my newest hero. I now hope to be able to pick up some cabinet liner later this week!

Very cool hack!

mod*mom said...

hi adrienne!
thank you for entering my cielo giveaway. i'll be looking for your review. i saw one on thingamababy recently, but i didn't read it.
thank you for looking at my blog :)

Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...

Ezra and Adrienne-

Though your kids may not need it now, that kind of cabinet liner is great for helping little ones who have trouble sitting up in those slick wooden highchairs you usually are stuck with when eating out. Just place a small piece on the seat and under your child. No more sliding around. When my girls were smaller their behinds would always slide around until they seemed to tip over a bit, but this fixed it. Plus, sometimes those highchairs are more than a bit gross; I like having something between them and the seat.

Anonymous said...

For those reading this in 2008, the Table Toppers are available on Amazon and in just an ABC pattern. Additionally, for the environmentally concerned, they are now biodegradable in a few months. So, the disposable aspect is not as much of a concern.

adrienne said...


YAY! The ABC pattern sounds great!

Biodegradable is only an improvement if the biodegradable items don't end up in a landfill. There's no exposure to air (anaerobic) or the elements in modern landfills, so an egg salad sandwich from the 90s probably still looks like an egg salad sandwich even after a decade of burial in the landfill. Now, if you compost the biodegradable items, it is a reduction in landfill use.