Last Updated on March 16, 2022 by Corinne Schmitt
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.
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?]
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.
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
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.
If you have a smartphone or two, you can try some of these multiplayer mobile games.
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!