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5 things to help keep your preschooler occupied in a restaurant

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We’ve been working on “restaurant manners” with our youngest kids (the teens and tween have it down pat by now), but even the most well-behaved kid can get bored while waiting for the food to arrive. Yes, you could always hand them your cell phone or pull out the video games, but sometimes, non-noisy and low-tech is the way to go.

In a pinch, almost anything that works well on a long car trip will keep your kids occupied in a restaurant — at least for a little while. I keep these five things in my car at all times, so that I’m ready for impromptu dinners out with my kids’ friends and their parents (which is pretty much the main way we all socialize these days). Even patrons at a kid-friendly pizza parlor deserve some peace and quiet while they eat.

“Look and Find: Fairies,” $7.98 at

Look and Find books. “Where’s Waldo?” and “I Spy” are classics, but there are plenty of others out there, with varying degrees of difficulty.

Wikki Stix, $21.50 for 50 packages of 8 at

Wikki Stix travel packs. I keep a dozen or so of these with me and hand them out to my kids’ friends when we’re all out for pizza; each travel pack has 8 wax-coated yarn sticks and a small activity sheet to get kids started. Twist them into jewelry, play connect-the-dots, or build 3-D art right at the table—quietly.

“Stick To It: Pets,” $11.55 at

Magnet books. They’re quiet, reusable, and sharable. They don’t leave marks on the table. Look for ones that don’t have famous characters on them — you’ll get more mileage out of the book if you don’t have to deal with But-I’m-Too-Old-for-Elmo issues.

Fiskars hand punch, $5.39 at

A hand-held hole punch. Sure, lots of family-friendly chain places offer up four-packs of crayons and paper place mats, but once those crayons roll under the table and the place mat is scribbled up beyond recognition you’ll still need something for the kids to do. (Especially since it’s likely that your meals haven’t even arrived yet.) I keep a few small notebooks, a pack of cheap note cards, and extra crayons in the car, but one of my best friends handed a hole-punch like this to my 4-year-old while we were waiting for our food to arrive, and he stayed happily occupied for ages, punching holes in paper and making different designs.

3-inch magnifying glass, $5.50 at

A magnifying glass. A classic magnifying glass really comes in handy with the younger set. Have them take a closer look at the upholstery, their clothes, their skin, or their food. Pair it with a “Look and Find”-type book and have them search for things that they wouldn’t have noticed at first glance. Tell older kids to write down what they see. By the time they’re bored, it’ll be time to eat.

How do you keep your kids occupied in a restaurant?

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5 comments so far...

  • We go to restaurants at least a couple times a week, so my kids are used to it. I stopped bringing stuff for them before they were 2. What we do is:

    1) Talk about our day. “How was your __ class/teacher? What did you have for lunch? I met with ____ today.” Also, talk about things that are coming up, and miscellaneous stuff like “did you know tomorrow is the first day of Spring? What do you look forward to doing in the Spring?”

    2) Work on reading / pre-reading skills using menus, signs, and whatever is on the table.

    3) They usually have children’s menus with crayons in most restaurants.

    4) Within reasonable limits, use the table stuff creatively. Let the kids do whatever with their straws - make shapes/letters, etc. Taste a bit of salt on one palm, pepper on the other. Use crayons as “wheels” to roll stuff around. Stuff like that. My youngest will create a whole drama using the sugar packets as people, buildings, etc.

    5) If the above doesn’t sound sufficient, tell the server your kid is really hungry and ask them to bring some bread / fruit ASAP.

    SKL  |  April 8th, 2011 at 7:43 pm

  • I’ve never brought stuff for my kids. We have conversations, play I Spy, or even pull out a pen and paper and play tic-tac-toe. I can only recall once or twice where that was insufficient and someone had to go for a walk or something.

    akmom  |  April 10th, 2011 at 7:31 pm

  • Pen and Paper for Tic-Tac-Toe totally counts. :) Think of these as alternatives to electronics in any situation, then, not just for restaurant use!

    Lylah  |  April 10th, 2011 at 9:35 pm

  • We try to talk too - but sometimes, it’s just ‘one of those days’ and you need a little more (my little man is 3-1/2 and extremely active).

    All great ideas - I especially love the hole-puncher! I think my son will get a kick out of that one…

    Diane  |  April 12th, 2011 at 3:27 pm

  • Great suggestions, but won’t the paper from the hole puncher get everywhere and you have to clean it all up before you leave the restaurant?

    Linda  |  April 12th, 2011 at 4:55 pm