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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?