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12 Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy at a Restaurant

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Nothing ruins a dinner out faster than bored, grumpy kids. If you can find fun ways to keep your kids busy at a restaurant, you can actually enjoy your meal together. These are great activities for kids that don’t require any advance planning.

two boys intently looking at a paper with title text reading 12 Ways to Keep Your Kids busy at a Restaurant

Normally, for health and budget reasons, I advocate for eating dinner at home. Every once in awhile it’s a nice treat to go out to eat.

Eating out as a family not only gives mom and/or dad the night off from cooking and doing dishes, but also provides the kids with a great opportunity to practice their table manners (LOL–If that is what YOUR kids are doing while you’re dining out, please come borrow mine!) and enjoy getting to choose what they get to eat.

How to Keep Your Kids Busy at a Restaurant

The problem with dining out as a family is that the kids excitement about the restaurant lasts about 2 minutes, which is about as long as it takes them to consume their meal which doesn’t appear until 20-30 minutes into your restaurant adventure. It is every parent’s nightmare to be post-order, pre-food delivery when a child meltdown begins.

Since I am so easily distracted, distraction is my favorite parenting technique and luckily, is easy to employ in a restaurant. Below is a list of my favorite restaurant kid-distraction strategies to help you enjoy your next eatery outing.

1. I Spy

You will see this on a lot of my lists because it is so easy to play anywhere. No equipment required.

Find an object in the restaurant, announce that you have spied something that is (insert color of object here) and let each person take turns guessing what the object is. The first person to guess correctly gets to spy the next item.

2. Dining Out Printables

Most family-friendly restaurants help you out with kid entertainment by providing coloring pages or activity placemats and some crayons. For those that don’t, arm yourself ahead of time with some you can print at home. MyPlate.gov has several printables.

3. Straw Wrapper Worms

This is ridiculously easy and for some unknown reason, appeals to kids of all ages. When you remove your straw wrapper, do it in a way that bunches it all up (grasp at top of straw wrapper tightly, with bottom against the table, then slide wrapper down slowly, maintaining a tight grasp so that the wrapper bunches at the bottom, then slide off). Then, lay it on the table and use the straw to drop small drops of water on the wrapper to make it expand.

4. Straw Wrapper Roses

Older children might be able to do these and younger children will be amazed at your abilities when you create beautiful roses from your straw wrapper. See the instructions from DIY Maven on Curbly.

5. Knives and Sugar Packet Tic Tac Toe

Make a tic-tac-toe board using butter knives. Then, use sweetener packets (choose two different colors) as your X’s and O’s. [This idea was borrowed from How Does She?]

6. Snacks

Okay, I know you are eating out so it seems ridiculous to bring food, right? But if you have younger kids, this is a gold mine of kid distraction.

If you choose wisely, the snack can serve double duty as a game AND a temporary cork for talkative kids. Fruit snacks can be sorted by colors. Cheerios can be strung on a string to practice fine motor skills. Any other snack can be used to practice counting.

If you didn’t think to bring a snack with you, ask your server if you can get a small bowl of oyster crackers.

7. Order Dessert

Have you ever noticed that when kids eat out they are done eating a lot sooner than the grown-ups? Order them dessert when they finish their meal (you can use this as a bribe for good behavior for the first half of your meal) so they will have something to distract them while you finish your dinner.

8. Family Dinner Conversation

Just because you’re eating away from home doesn’t mean you have to ditch your dinner table conversation. We like to go around the table and have everyone tell about the best part of their day.

Sometimes we let each person pick a question to ask the next person (e.g. What was the funniest part of your day? What’s your favorite vacation memory?). A friend of mine has each person in the family give a compliment to everyone else at the table.

9. Sugar Packet Towers

Use sugar packets in lieu of playing cards to build towers.

10. Memory

Lay out a bunch of items from the table and/or your purse. Let the kids study the arrangement for a minute or two and then have them close their eyes while you remove one of the items. The kids have to try and figure out what item was removed.

11. Make Your Own Matching Game

Trace table items (e.g. silverware, sugar packet, salt shaker) onto the back of the paper placemat and have kids match items to the shapes.

12. Games That Fit in Your Purse

I keep Left-Right-Center in my purse since it’s only slightly larger than a tube of lip gloss. Spot It is another compact family game that is fun for all ages.

Hopefully these suggestions will help make your next family dining out experience an enjoyable one. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments.

More Ideas

If you have a smartphone or two, you can try some of these multiplayer mobile games.

a family sitting on a couch holding phones and a tablet with text overlay reading The Best Multiplayer Mobile Games for Families

Want to stay low-tech? Bring along one of these fortune tellers. Kids today enjoy them just as much as we did when we were kids!

a printable fortune teller game

24 thoughts on “12 Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy at a Restaurant”

  1. Please, for the love of God from all of those who have ever worked in a restaurant and all those who will ever work in restaurants after me, do not play sugar packet tower.

    • Noted! Thank you for the input. Also, thank you for your service. I was a waitress for a single month in my life. Hardest job I ever had!

  2. I don’t have any children but of course have noticed or listened to them when dining out! These are great suggestions!!

  3. Neat ideas! I have a 2 year old so it is hard right now just to go anywhere with him. Our restaurant of choice is anywhere with a playground! I will keep these so when he gets older we have them :). Thanks for sharing with us @ My Favorite Posts SHOW OFF Weekend Blog Party!

    The Wondering Brain

  4. We eat out way too much and have always taken the little one’s out. We do a lot of the thing you’ve listed, these are great ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great ideas, but I still don’t know that I’m brave enough most days. Then again, I have a kid with special needs, so sometimes just the noise and atmosphere is too much for him.

  6. Wow, thanks so much for this post. I have 4 boys and this is an ongoing struggle. I love your tips! Many I had not thought of.

  7. That’s why we always go to a buffet restaurant because there is no waiting time for the food to come. No reason for my kids to get bored. LOL! Anyway, these tips are so helpful for all parents out there, whose kids gets bored easily.

  8. Mine is the opposite, they finish last so no room for dessert. I agree about table manners. We used to dine out every weekend but we cut back into twice a month, budget wise.. Number 8 is what we do all the time.

  9. These tips are awesome! I used to give my son snacks to keep him busy or I would color with him. I love the idea of eye spy at the restaurant.

  10. Yes very helpful to those who have kids and a good tips to those who wants to have kid soon ( like me ) and I love outdoor games!

  11. What awesome tips. My son is nearly 6 and Autistic and he is always very disruptive at restaurants. We have tried some of these, but the others will be helpful for sure.

  12. This is very helpful for those who have kids with them while dining out. Other’s don’t like the noise of kids, so this tip does help a lot. Thanks for sharing.

  13. this is so great. I hate seeing families passing off electronics at the dinner table. Really get a babysitter if you can’t talk to your kid at dinner

  14. This list is chock full of goodies. We let our kids get dessert for just the reason you noted, if they want it. And they usually do…and it usually works like a charm at keeping them occupied while we finish up. 🙂

  15. Some of your ideas I did with my own kids. This made me smile because I loved coming up with distraction games like this!


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