How to Keep Kids Busy and Happy in a Restaurant
I don’t like cooking, and I especially don’t like cooking for picky eaters (which includes, uh, everyone else in my immediate family). However, I do like eating a meal with my family, so quite often we combine our family’s social nature with restaurant eating.
We’ve been eating out at restaurants since our kids were very little and have never had a real scene. Well, aside from the Hidden Sinus Infection Incident at a Coney Island where my daughter knocked her water over on purpose and then when I went to cancel our order so we could high tail it out of there, she dumped all the salt and sugar out on the table. And then on the way to the car she threw herself to the ground and chipped her tooth. BANNER RESTAURANT OUTING.
Oh and also the year when my son was two and constantly constipated so we just stayed home. Because being two is already hard and being constantly constipated really ramps up the grumpy into Threat Level: Yellow. You don’t want to be at a restaurant when your child is in Code Yellow. Consider that my first tip.
If you’re clear of Code Yellow and are heading out to eat at a restaurant, here are some tips and tricks for keeping kids occupied at the table.
5 Ways to Occupy Kids in a Restaurant
1. A kid-sized bag. Have your child pack little backpack or cute mini suitcase with things to play with at the restaurant. My kids tend to go with Littlest Pet Shop Pets or a menagerie of Schleich animals. This is an easy way to help kids pass the time while they wait for their chicken nuggets to be perfectly fried. Bonus of having a fully packed bag of his own: If your child suddenly decides your rules suck, he can use it to move out!
2. Colorforms. The kids’ bag works best if it’s packed with things that will occupy your child but not distract or annoy other diners. Like Colorforms, which make a great (i.e., quiet) restaurant activity. I like this simple set from Uncommon Goods that allows kids to create their own things with the shapes, like a robot or a nuclear reactor. Another option is a reusable sticker pad set that allows your child to create scenes using the background and vinyl stickers. The stickers only adhere to the special background part, so no worries about your kid papering the restaurant walls with Spiderman’s logo.
3. Play-Doh. I’m going to tell you about a thing I do that will make you gasp and say, “What kind of a monster are you?” I keep a one ounce container of Play-Doh in my purse for waiting rooms and restaurants. Actually I carry two, one for each child, in the exact same color, because you don’t want to start messing around with mixing colors or have kids fighting over who gets the blue one. If your child is very young, try giving her just half the play-doh to play with. With our older kids, we play a game with the play-doh. It’s like charades — you think of a word (probably a noun) and mold your doh as best you can to illustrate that word. Everyone guesses what you’ve made.
4. Paper and pens. I have a small notebook in my purse for writing notes while I’m running around, and in a pinch, I can get it out and offer it to a bored child as drawing paper. I once kept my friend Alice’s son busy for almost 30 minutes at the table with my notebook, a pen, and a highlighter. And I came home with some wonderful illustrations of Tornado Boy and his unnamed sidekick, including some fight scenes with lots of “bif!” and “bam!” sound effects.
5. Washable placemats and books. Some restaurants have special kids placemats, with games and pictures to color. That’s great if your kids are into that, but if you’re not taking your kids to a place with custom corporate logo coloring mats, you can bring your own: eatsleepdoodle has some super cute cotton placemats that can be colored with washable markers and then laundered and reused. If your kids aren’t into drawing, try a wipe-clean activity book instead. Your kids might learn something while they’re waiting for their overpriced grilled cheese sandwiches to come to the table.
Bonus tip: For more helpful tips on keeping kids occupied at restaurants (especially if you’re dealing with very young children) let me recommend Asha Dornfest’s amazing site, Parent Hacks. Her archives are full of terrific ideas from parents, including a restaurant survival kit (with more ideas for that Play-Doh I mentioned), a super smart hack for spoons (make sure to read the comments) and a pitch for learning simple origami. Asha also has a book, also called Parent Hacks, that I would strongly suggest you read from cover to cover.
Do you have any kid-tested strategies for making restaurant eating fun and hassle free? I would love to hear them.
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Photo source: Depositphoto/FamVeldmanPublished February 15, 2007. Last updated August 29, 2018.