10 Ways to Keep Your Child Busy in a Restaurant

Fun distractions and ideas to help kids keep their patience while you wait

Keep your child busy in a restaurant
There are plenty of table games and other activities that will keep your child busy in a restaurant so everyone can enjoy their meal!. AE Pictures Inc./Stone/Getty Images

Remember date night? Sure you do! You and your significant other heading out to a fill-in-the-blank-of-your-favorite-choice (fun, fancy, casual) restaurant, spending a leisurely few hours, eating, drinking, chatting, maybe even just sitting in compatible silence. It was relaxing, it was fun, it was glorious.

Going out to dinner with a preschooler, on the other hand, is just about the exact opposite of date night dining.

Not only are there more people at the table, the restaurant and your dining companions are usually much louder (or at least one of them is), the venue and the ambiance are a bit different than that for couples, and you probably find yourself doing a lot more juggling (the metaphorical kind, not the actual kind!) than you remember. While it would be nice to simply sit and talk to your little one as a family, that doesn't always work.

So yes, dining out with a young child can sometimes be a challenge. It can be hard for them to sit still for that long -- going out to eat can take anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes. And if your child is hungry and the restaurant is crowded, it can be an even tougher wait.

However, if you have enough tools in your parenting arsenal, you'll know that there are plenty of ways to keep your child busy in a restaurant. This allows you and all of your dining companions to have a great meal.


#1 - Load up the tablet or smartphone.

There is a lot of debate about this, both online and off. The reality is that if you want to have a nice meal with your spouse, partner, friend, cousin or someone else, AND not be interrupted constantly, AND need to bring your young child with you, bringing technology to the table isn't necessarily a bad thing.

If you do, however, be sure to send limits on both the amount of time your child can spend on the device and what type of apps they can use. Also, bring headphones or earbuds so the entire dining establishment doesn't have to hear whatever it is your child is playing.

#2 - Tell each other jokes.

Laughing can cure any boredom blues and can make your wait for food go much faster. So crack a few with your little one. 

Whose joke is the funniest? Which joke-teller can make the others laugh the loudest? Keep in mind that preschoolers aren't the most skilled joke-tellers just yet, but this is sure to be a fun activity nonetheless. If you need ideas for jokes to share with your preschooler, try reading 30 Jokes for Little Kids

#3 - Snacks. 

It sounds counter-intuitive to bring your own food to a place where you will be purchasing food, but preschool-age children are not known for their patience, nor their understanding (or their logic!).

If you think the restaurant you are going to might have a wait (or might take a while delivering the food), stick some snacks in your bag to give to your preschooler to nosh on. It doesn't have to be big, it doesn't have to be something that will spoil their meal, just enough to tide them over.

Snacks also work well if you have a picky eater at the table, so make sure you bring something that they enjoy too.

#4 - Go for a walk. 

This is really only an OK thing to do if there is a reasonable amount of space in the restaurant or if it is nice outside and you can walk​ around the parking lot and/or surrounding area. 

If you choose to stay inside, it's probably best if you do not walk around the dining room. Instead, limit yourself to the waiting area (make sure it isn't crowded!). 

#5 - (Small) Arts and crafts. 

You don't want to bring a ton of things because really, part of the dining out experience is teaching kids about waiting and acting well in public and social situations.

But if you have room in your bag or purse (or if your preschooler is still in diapers), it always helps in situations where you have to wait if you have quiet, creative things for them to do.

Consider including small packs of crayons, stickers, small note pads, small cans of Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, or Wiki sticks. 

#6 - Become a magician. 

Slight-of-hand tricks - even simple ones - are fascinating (and funny!) to young children. While there are definitely some easy plan-ahead tricks you can do with a pencil, just making use of what you have on hand works well too.

For example, take a sugar packet and cover it with a napkin. Lift the napkin and show your preschooler the sugar packet. Cover the sugar packet with the napkin once more and wave your hand over it, saying some magic words (let your preschooler decide what they should be!). Pick up the napkin with the sugar packet inside, carefully folding it so the sugar packet can't be seen. Return the sugar packet back to the table under the napkin. (Don't forget the magic words!)

#7 - Make use of the menus. 

Children's menus are great because they are generally filled with games and coloring activities, jokes, and more. Work on them together!

Were you not given children's menus or the restaurant doesn't have them? Color and play games on the back of placemats or on napkins.

If you can hold on to your (adult) menu, do so. Look at the pictures together and ask some questions. What types of food would your preschooler order if they could get anything they wanted? What ingredients do they think are in certain dishes? Ask questions about some of the ingredients -- for example, what does your preschooler think blue cheese is? 

#8 - Play games. 

No, not the kind with pieces, the kind where you only need some creativity and trained eyes. Games such as "I Spy," "Would You Rather," and "I am Going on a Picnic" are fun and work on important social skills such as taking turns.

You can also guess what types of food the tables around you have ordered, how long it will take for your food to come, and what color shirt that the next person who walks into the restaurant will be wearing. Be creative!

#9 - Bring small toys. 

Again, you don't want to bring the whole kitchen sink, but in general, when going places with preschoolers, it does make sense to have small, entertaining items available so that when the going gets tough at the table, you do not have to get going.

Think small cars, tiny dolls, small books, toys you get from fast food places -- anything that is small and will fit in your bag, purse, or diaper bag. Also, make sure they aren't anything super-important that would cause a calamity if accidentally left behind. 

#10 - Introduce something new. 

Do you know what preschoolers find fascinating? Calculators. They also like buttons and thimbles from sewing kits, and magnets, and coins, and any assortment of items that they might not necessarily be familiar with but are probably residing in your purse, bag, or diaper bag.

Before you hand them over, however, make sure everything is safe and age-appropriate. As your preschooler plays, try to get some learning in. Do they know what the item is used for? 

Final Thoughts on Happy Dining

What happens if you forgot to pack something to keep your child busy at the table? All is not lost, really! Creativity is the mother of invention, after all.

Most restaurants keep lots of things on the table, designed primarily to help or enhance your dining experience, but they do a good job of keeping your child entertained as well.

When your child was a toddler, you were probably very quick to push the sugar packets, salt and pepper shakers, catsup bottles and other condiments, silverware, napkins, jelly boxes and anything else found on a restaurant table that your child could grab out of arms' reach. Now that your child is a bit older and has more impulse control, use what the restaurant has so kindly given you to have a bit of fun.

  • How big of a tower can your preschooler make?
  • Play the "What's missing?" game. Put a number of items on the table and let your preschooler study them for a minute. Have him turn his head away and then take one item away. Can he figure out what is missing?
  • Make a tic-tac-toe board using utensils and let the smaller items on the table serve as the X's and O's.
  • Work on math skills by having your preschooler sort items into categories by color, size, shape, and more.

The possibilities are endless!

Looking for ideas on where to eat with your preschooler? Try some of these Restaurants Where Kids Eat Free. Happy dining!

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