10 Screen-Free Ways to Entertain Kids Out to Eat

by Meghan

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We eat out with our kids a lot.  They have been going to restaurants since they were infants, and I can recall maybe twice since Big M was born nearly 4 years ago, where they were so badly behaved we took turns racing through our food while the other shepherded the kids to the car.  On occasion, we have been known to hand over our iPhone to buy us some calm until the food arrives.  But it is our tool of last resort.  For us, meal time is family time – TV, iPad, iPhone and any other screens can be put away for an hour while we collectively share a meal together.  So how do we occupy our two girls under four at a restaurant before the food comes?  Today’s Family Organization post features my 10 Screen-Free Ways to Entertain Kids Out to Eat.

10 Screen-Free Ways

10 Screen-Free Ways to Entertain Kids Out to Eat

I grew up in a house where we all sat down together for dinner every night – and unless the Cowboys, Spurs or Aggies were on – the TV was off.  And let’s be real, meals were planned around those games!  With my kids, I still do that every night, though with the exception of the weekend, my husband is usually home from work too late to join us.  Which is why we make an even bigger effort on the weekends to sit down together for family meals.  At home, the kids eat what we eat, help with meal preparations and are beginning to help with clean-up too.

At restaurants, there’s even more opportunity for family interaction with my plate clear of preparing the food.  Be realistic with your expectations.  Toddlers and preschoolers are highly unlikely to make it through a 12-course tasting menu or even last through multiple courses, other than maybe dessert!  Choose places that are family-friendly, and provide prompt service.  Seize it as an hour to model proper social behaviors, conversation, and etiquette, all while actually getting to know your kids!

1. Practice Table Etiquette

Big M’s preschool helped lay the groundwork for this – at the start of snack time every day, they say a little poem:

Say please and thank you,
Try to be polite.
Sharing with others
is always right.

Then, they pass the wet-naps to clean their hands, and pass a basket of napkins to use for snack time.  She likes to say it before family meals too, and then offer to pass around condiments, the bread plate, etc.  We’ve also incorporated some of our favorite lessons from Daniel Tiger, like:

Napkin in your lap… clap, clap, clap!

Now, we sit down at the table, she opens her napkin, takes out the knife (if there is one) and hands it to me, puts her napkin in her lap and lays her fork down on the table.  Then, she kindly reminds everyone else they need to put napkins in their laps as well.  My little rule stickler!  We are still working on this with Lil’ M – she mostly likes to play peek-a-boo with cloth napkins and tear paper ones to shreds still.

We’ve also started working on the proper way to set the table: where does the fork go?  where does your drink, bread plate go? Restaurants are pre-set, so it’s a great place to talk about it.  And it’s paying off at home!  Big M now asks to help set the table at every meal.

Screen Free Ways to Entertain - Setting the Table

2. Read the Menu Together

Big M is 3.5 and Lil’ M is only 22 months, so neither of them can actually read yet.  However, they both always get a menu, and they love to ‘read’ it.  Most of the places we go are familiar favorites, and they know what their options are, but we still read them outloud and ask what they would like to have.

Now, Big M will not only tell me what she wants to have, but ask me what I am having as well, making for a fun little foodie conversation.  They both also now order for themselves when the waiter comes to the table.  Lil’ M still requires a little translating, but it’s always entertaining.

‘Playing waitress’ has now become one of Big M’s favorite imaginative play activities at home – she walks around the house with a Leap Frog toy that it supposed to be for practicing letter formation, and asks for your order.  She was beyond thrilled last week when our waitress let her ‘practice’ with her beverage tray!

Screen Free Ways to Entertain at a Restaurant

3. Play ‘I Spy’

Once the order is in, Big M usually proclaims, “How about we play a game?  How about we play I Spy with my little eye?”  And so the game begins.  There are lots of interesting sights in most restaurants, and if you grab a seat by a window, even more to watch.  In the last month or so, Lil’ M now joins in too… she throws in the “I Spy” then repeats whatever the person before her has just said.

But the more important lesson is one of taking turns in conversation.  You say your part, then listen to what the others at the table have to contribute.

4. Color!

The oldest mom-trick in the book… and many of the places we frequent even provide the colors and placemats or kids’ menus to color on.  It’s great because it keeps the kids quietly entertained, but can still be a socially engaging activity.  Big M likes to request Daddy’s help to draw specific things.  I talk to Lil’ M about what colors she’s using.  We ask them to tell us about their pictures.

5. Build Jelly Towers

If we go out for breakfast, it’s usually to a diner and there’s always jelly packets and often creamers already on the table.  I can’t take credit for coming up with this one – Lil’ M did it all on her own, and then of course, Big M had to join in too.  They use them as blocks, building towers, castles and whatever their little hearts conjure up.

Screen Free Ways to Entertain - Jelly Blocks

6. Sensory Play with Salt and Sugar

This one can get messy – I still won’t try it with Lil’ M, but Big M, my Neatnik, is a big fan.  Using the salt shaker, sugar jar or a few packets of sugar, pour some onto a bread plate or saucer.  Your preschooler can practice letter formation, numbers, or just make their own designs.  Give your waiter fair warning and have the plate cleared before all the food arrives to avoid any unintended messes!

7. Napkin Origami

You know how on cruises, they always leave the towel animal on your bed?  At any age, it never gets old!  You can do something similar with cloth napkins.  The girls are a little young still to make these by themselves, but they get a kick out of watching me make them, taking them apart and then asking me to make them again!  You can do this with either cloth or paper napkins.

For some easy how-tos for different napkin folding options, visit Family Organization and Family Organization.

8.  Read books

My girls are big book lovers.  They love to ‘read the menu,’ and occasionally get upset once they are all taken away after we order.  I almost always keep a board book or two in the diaper bag to hand out for just such moments.  They page through them, swapping back and forth, or sometimes ask us to read them to them too.  I swap them out every week or two, so there’s always a different book to keep them entertained.

9. Order quick, shared appetizer

Both my girls LOVE dipping… chips and salsa, chips and guacamole, giant pretzels and mustard, pita bread and hummus or artichoke dip.  If it comes with something they can dip, they will try anything.  While you don’t want to spoil their meal, an easy way to keep them entertained and crankiness at bay is to order an easy appetizer to share.  It also reinforces table etiquette, as they serve themselves some on their appetizer plates, ask for more, pass the chips for sharing, etc.

Screen-Free Ways to Entertain - Quick Appetizer

10. Make conversation

Mind-boggling, I know, but meals are the perfect place for family conversation.  We have made it a daily ritual to always ask Big M what her favorite part of the day is at dinner.  By asking open-ended questions, we are sure to get a more involved response than just yes or no.  And we’ve been doing it for so long, now she will ask us the same question in return!

It also provides the opportunity to rehash all the events of the day, emphasizing sequencing vocabulary.  It then leads to conversation about what is on the agenda for the next day, or what is coming up that she is really looking forward to.

10 Screen-Free Ways to Entertain Kids

Meal times, including when out to eat, are a great opportunity to engage, teach, model social behaviors and spend quality time with your kids.  Don’t waste it by handing them an iPad to keep them quiet.  What are your favorite meal-time activities?  How do you keep your kiddos entertained at a restaurant?

Have older kids?  Repeat Crafter Me has a great list of Family Organizationusing nothing but materials at your table.  If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out 15 Ways to Remove the Grump from your Day, and all our Mommy Sanity Savers on Pinterest.

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gwyn September 15, 2015 - 4:09 pm

We had many ways of keeping our kids (including our autistic son) entertained. We would play tic-tac-toe. We would take drawing paper and pencils (a big one for my son), or we would read aloud from a chapter book when he was old enough to be interested in that. Sometimes we’d take cards and play card games, and… with my son especially who had sensory issues, he was aloud to listen to music or play a video game at the table if the restaurant was too noisy for him to handle. We also went during ‘down times’ such as 2pm rather than 5 or 6, and we tried to sit in a quiet corner rather than somewhere there would be a lot of traffic past us.

Stephanie July 23, 2015 - 3:06 am

Screen free play is always a good idea! My husband is perfectly fine with handing our son his smartphone to keep him quiet, but I always bring at least 5 activities or books when we eat out. I had never thought of a few of these – stacking the tiny jelly cups and taking a lesson in manners? Awesome! I found this over @ http://affimity.com/#/sharedPost/2/9765 and I can only say thank you. I will definitely be sharing this to keep and share further.

15 Ways to Remove the Grump From Your Day - Playground Parkbench July 20, 2015 - 6:22 am

[…] this post, you might also enjoy two of our most popular posts on easing daily transitions and entertaining kids out to eat without screens.  You can find both of these, as well as our favorite parenting posts from around the web on our […]

Christina @There's Just One Mommy July 11, 2015 - 10:48 pm

I remember making jelly towers as a kid!
Love the idea of making a mini sensory plate to practice letters in. Definitely fun!

PGPBMeghan July 12, 2015 - 9:39 pm

The sensory plate takes a little bravery the first time… and I still won’t do it with Lil’ M because I know she would end up dumping it all over herself!

Esther of Local Adventurer July 1, 2015 - 11:58 pm

these are great ideas! i might try napkin origami next time i’m out with my friends kids to see how well it works. 🙂

Jacquie June 20, 2015 - 8:55 am

Great ideas! We love building jelly towers (and creamer towers and sugar packet roads with jelly cars 😉 And so glad you put read a book on the list — waiting is the perfect time to squeeze in a little book love! It’s so much nicer to have a meal when the kids are entertained and not wiggling to get down from the table.

PGPBMeghan June 20, 2015 - 10:36 am

Oooohhh… there’s a new one for our list! Jelly cars down Sugar Road – love it!

Mary Wright June 13, 2015 - 12:33 pm

Teaching about the Food Pyramid is also a wonderful Learning Game. www. my food pyramid.gov has wonderful games for kids.

Teach your child the colors of the food pyramid and associated food group. Then when they are waiting for their food discuss the parts of the food pyramid. i.e. Milk is blue for the dairy products, broccoli green for vegetables, watermelon red for fruit, etc….

You can also talk about the ingredients used to prepare their meal they selected and which part of the food pyramid each goes with.

My Bored Toddler June 10, 2015 - 7:03 am

This post has some great ideas – my girls love reading the menus! Thanks for sharing on #ToddlerFunFriday

PGPBMeghan June 10, 2015 - 11:13 am

Thanks so much! We hit the diner for breakfast with the grandparents this morning, and they were thrilled to have a whole basket full of jelly blocks to play with!

Ali Gilbert June 9, 2015 - 10:08 pm

This is a great list!! Such great ideas! Thanks for sharing on #ToddlerFunFriday!

PGPBMeghan June 10, 2015 - 11:17 am

Thanks for stopping by – anything to keep them part of the conversation and not lost in a screen, right?


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