How to keep kids busy at a restaurant: Mom tips

Back in my pre-kid days, I had grand visions of taking my children out to eat in restaurants. I imagined them sitting properly in high chairs, ordering their meals with a “please” and “thank you,” trying new foods and making only a minimal mess—with no screen time, of course. Oh, did I have it coming.

But my imagination doesn’t have to be all wrong. Now that I have two kids—who happen to be picky eaters, BTW, and won’t eat unless they are being read to—I have learned some tricks on how to keep kids busy at a restaurant.

7 tips on how to keep your kids busy at a restaurant - tried + true tips from a mom of picky eaters! Ten Thousand Hour Mama

That doesn’t mean we eat out often, and it doesn’t mean my kids are always model citizens at a restaurant. But it does mean I’m not crushed by anxiety at the thought of my kids throwing french fries. It does mean I get to eat my meal when we go to a restaurant as a family. (Or at least most of it.) And it even means I was brave enough to take my kids to a sushi restaurant—and that my picky eaters actually tried sashimi! (The tempura helped.)

It’s not magic, and it’s not rocket science. Here’s how to keep kids busy at a restaurant.

Top tips to keep kids busy at a restaurant

Order fast

When your server comes by for your drink order, be ready to order all your food right then. You don’t want to use up all your kids’ attention span before chow actually arrives.

Come prepared

I always pack a bag with activities that will keep kids busy at a restaurant. Some of my go-to choices:

  • Animal Doodle dry erase cards. These wallet-sized cards don’t take up a lot of room and can be reused every time you take kids to a restaurant!
  • Flashcards. We get these at the Dollar Store or the Target Dollar Spot, and we use them to play a bunch of different games. (See my post on 5 games to play with flashcards for some ideas!)
  • Coloring books. Sometimes the kids’ menu doesn’t offer enough space for your kids’ creativity, so when we go to restaurants as a family, I pack a few coloring books.
  • Wiki stix. Kids can make all sorts of things, from classes to log cabins, with these flexible toys.
  • Water Wow. These paint-with-water books, which you can reuse again and again, have kept my kids busy at restaurants—and on road trips, at the doctor’s office and countless other places, making them one of my most valuable ways to keep the girls entertained without screen time.

Don’t expect to sit the whole time

Little kids’ bodies are meant to move, so if you’re wondering how to keep kids busy at a restaurant, make sure you’re prepared to get up from the table with them! They’ll want to explore or play hide and seek—let them! Just make sure they’re not disrupting other diners, that they don’t get in the restaurant staff’s way and that they don’t get bashed by swinging doors.

Tag team

If you’re lucky enough to eat out with another adult, take turns. One of you can focus on eating while the other helps keep your kids busy at the restaurant.

These 7 tips to keep kids busy at a restaurant are from a mom of picky eaters. They're gold! Ten Thousand Hour Mama

Pre-feed the kids

You want your kids to be hungry so they’ll eat the meal you order but not so hungry that they’ll melt down before you’re even seated. This may be controversial, but if your kids get hangry like mine, pack a minimal snack (like a squeeze pouch or a few crackers)—they’ll keep their appetite but won’t throw a fit at the restaurant while they wait for the food.

Pick a kid-friendly restaurant

If restaurants could go to heaven, those with a kids’ play area would be first in line at the pearly gates. But other factors—like patient waitstaff with a good sense of humor, plenty of room between tables and a kid’s menu that ventures beyond beige fried food—can help keep kids busy at a restaurant, too. (I like this list of kid-friendly restaurants in Portland.)

Bring something new

Whether it’s a new felt book or a little toy, pack something your kids have never played with. The novelty will keep kids busy at a restaurant longer than an activity they’ve seen a million times before.

Tell me—how do you keep your kids busy at a restaurant? 

14 thoughts on “How to keep kids busy at a restaurant: Mom tips

  • July 12, 2017 at 3:42 pm
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    These days, with an almost 11-yr-old, I aim to keep him occupied with food and conversation while keeping him off his screen. No easy feat!

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    • July 12, 2017 at 3:59 pm
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      I hear you! We use our phones sometimes, too, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Have you tried those conversation in a box kits, or the would you rather sets? Those spur fun conversations with older kids like your son!

      Reply
  • July 12, 2017 at 3:58 pm
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    Lots of great ideas! Eating out with kids is so fun, but it definitely takes attention!

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  • July 12, 2017 at 4:07 pm
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    These tips are so smart and so logical. It makes me wonder why I hadn’t thought of them before.

    I’m all for family friendly restaurants, if its not family friendly we won’t visit. I just don’t have the strength to deal with people who are ugly about kids.

    I love that you go prepared with all that stuff. I’m definitely definitely going to follow these suggestions.

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  • July 12, 2017 at 4:15 pm
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    From the looks of it, 75% of parents in Portland need to read and adopt these tips. Seriously, people, you had the child, take responsibility for it in public! Okay, rant over. Thanks for sharing.

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  • July 12, 2017 at 4:31 pm
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    Excellent tips! I still keep little granola bars and crackers in my bag whenever we go out with the kids just in case the food takes longer. And we loved Wiki stix too! We actually use the Charades app with our older kids sometimes now when have a long wait for our table. Yes, it’s an app, but it’s still interactive and the whole family plays.
    Marlynn | UrbanBlissLife recently posted…WINE BLISS: Hanna Winery & Vineyard – A California Wine Pairing Dinner EventMy Profile

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    • July 13, 2017 at 10:53 am
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      Ooh, we’ve never tried that app—I’ll have to check it out! It sounds super fun.

      Reply
  • July 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm
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    I don’t have any kiddo’s yet, but I will definitely need these tips down the road since I don’t think I can give up my obsession with trying new restaurants 🙂

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    • July 13, 2017 at 10:53 am
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      Yeah! Going to restaurants with kids CAN be done!

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  • July 12, 2017 at 11:11 pm
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    So many great ideas, with 3 young kiddies, eating out is such a challenge, we actually find it’s more stressful than enjoyable so generally avoid it. You have however inspired me to be better prepared and give it another go.?

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    • July 13, 2017 at 10:51 am
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      I used to find it more stressful than enjoyable but have turned the corner! The happy hour tip is actually what has made the biggest difference for us.

      Reply
  • July 13, 2017 at 6:57 am
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    Great tips! We also chat with our baby, because we do it at home (we wanted to ourselves get into the habit of meal times being family time) our little one is used to the chatting to the point that she expects it! 😂
    Sahar recently posted…Weddings Bells and Community BuildingMy Profile

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    • July 13, 2017 at 10:52 am
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      That’s AWESOME! It’s true that the habits you start when they’re itty bitty continue on. Unfortunately our habit was reading during mealtimes to get our oldest to eat—now both kids expect it at every meal. *eyeroll*

      Reply
  • July 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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    Such great tips! I remember shovelling my food at lightning speed and then racing out the door and then wondering why we had bothered coming to dinner! Always good to be prepared and this is very helpful!

    Reply

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