Tiny Diners – Keeping Kids Busy at a Restaurant


We love to eat out. Culinary delights for the preschool crowd aren’t really my cup of tea, but I’m game to enjoy an appetizer while they chow down. Lately though, my children seem to fall apart before the early bird specials – so we have become good at brunch. We have a select few restaurants that we like, but we need to be ready for anything, especially when far from home. I keep a small backpack in the car of novel toys that are ‘restaurant ready.’ I’m all about keeping kids busy at a restaurant so I can have my meal in peace! 

I am an occupational therapist. A child’s “occupation” is play. I have become really good at keeping my kids busy playing so I can enjoy the benefits of eating out! I mean, someone else is doing the food shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning — what’s not to love?

Here are a few of the go-to items that I use for keeping kids busy at a restaurant.

Silly Putty — I like that its contained in that little egg, its moldable, you can flatten it on newspaper, etc. We add small Lego pieces or Lite Brite pegs (remember those?) for added fine motor work! Play Foam, Model Magic, Play-Doh, pizza dough and other sticky things also fit the bill!

Wikki Stix — You can create anything with these bendable waxed sticks. Shapes, letters, eye glasses, 3-d creatures — wrap them around anything!

Drawing Surface — With this, go beyond crayons. A screen that can be easily wiped away is fascinating for some. Etchasketch, Magna doodle, and Boogie Board are low-mess and engaging. We have guessing games trying to figure out what the HECK they drew on that screen, between long sips of wine coffee.

Activity Pads — My favorite are the Melissa and Doug ones, and their Water-Wow is the best. At a wedding recently, I had these in my diaper bag in the cry room and they entertained six kids who found them as I walked down the aisle. Other companies make contained sets with crayons and themed stickers which are great.

Building materials  — Magnatiles, Legos, Tegu blocks — any building medium can keep them busy. Create a structure and have them copy it or replicate after demolition.  Stacking butter packets and creamers and organizing jelly containers work also! We are known to sort sweetener packets by color while the french toast cooks.

Magnet Boards and Colorforms –– I always look for sets that are contained in a box to prevent spilling. Travel games are great, also! I have fond memories of moving golf tees around a triangle at Cracker Barrel. I often see these contained activity sets at the holidays and I stock up like crazy and hoard them!

When all else fails, we check out the art scene on the walls inside the restaurant. If that doesn’t work, we go outside and count cars driving by. Still, those days happen when have to ask for that meal to go. We’ve all been there as kids babies in restaurants don’t always behave the way we want! Just remember to have grace for yourself and your kiddos.