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How to Keep Kids Busy and Happy at a Restaurant

How to Keep Kids Busy and Happy in a Restaurant

By Melissa Summers

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.

More from AlphaMom

Raising a Kid With Good Restaurant Manners
How to Have a Successful Outing With Your Kids
When Dinnertime Becomes a Dinnersaga

Photo source: Depositphoto/FamVeldman

Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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I use the Play-doh one ounce containers with our 28 month old. I keep a few in his diaper bag and the only time they come out is when he is about to lose it in a restaraunt. This is the only time he gets to play with it, so its a big deal and really works. Have an extra or two on hand though because if there are other kids at the table they will want some too! Its also necessary in case the first one lands in someone’s soup.


P.S. Land of Nod has a set of three of the mini suitcases (3 different sizes) for $19.99.
Thanks for the idea Melissa. I love this one!

Deanna (Domestic Chicky)

Great post! I love the flash cards and learning wheels…my only addition to this is I keep a box/bag of “car/trip/restaurant-only” goodies like this so that when I whip these things out, they seem new, and more likely to keep tham occupied longer. Books, games, stickers, mini-etch-a-sketch, etc…


A harmonica?!? You know, it’s amazing what lengths parents will go to humor their “little darling” regardless of the impact on those around them. I used to work as a hostess at a restaurant. We had a mother who would come in late in the afternoon with her 4-5 kids. She was always on her cell phone and her kids ran wild. I intercepted what appeared to be her 4 year-old daughter walking through the busy restaurant carrying her plate, to go sit with other relatives on the other side. Her mother was totally oblivious! ARRRRGHH! When my kids were… Read more »

slouching mom

Melissa! I have been waiting for you to write about this so that I could share the toy that made my husband and me continue to want to go out to dinner with the boys throughout their preschool years. It’s a set of mini-vehicles made of rubber. There’s a train, plane, car, fire engine, and boat, I think. Each vehicle type comes in multiple colors, so the possibilities for playing, sorting, etc. are endless. We LOVED these. You can view them/buy them here. This is a seriously great set.


Great Post. We have two items we never leave home without – play food and accessories for my youngest and a travel dinosaur magnet set for my oldest.
The play food (from Walmart) came in a travel bag and the magnet set (from Barnes & Noble) came in a metal tin, both perfect for storing the items in the pouch behind the drivers seat.


Harmonica? At a restaurant? Were the parents Vagabonds? Or is the PC term Hobos? Sounds like they had a little hobo in training.


Why oh why did I never think of little cans of Play-Doh? My son loves it, but I hate to play it with him because it makes my hands smell weird. It could be a special restaurant thing! I also want like 12 other things in this post, because toys are fun.


what neat toys! i wouldn’t ever use them for restaurants, but they’d be killer for roadtrips or just at home. i’m one of those mean moms who doesn’t let them bring anything into restaurants or church or wherever, but we seem to fare okay.
those vinyl vehicles are killer! thanks, slouching mom!