In my family, we had a no-restaurants rule for our kids for about two years. This is because they ate either at lightning speed—which meant one of us parents had to gobble too, and then take them outside to whack sticks on trees—or at a snail’s pace, which meant the closing waitstaff was turning up the air conditioning and blasting Jimmy Buffett as a subtle hint. Or the kids were simply rambunctious, pissy, or messy, an unpleasant experience for everyone involved.
But now that they’re four and seven, we’re once again eating dinner out occasionally. Now, I am not above using an iPad for distraction purposes in other situations—I’ve certainly tried to electronically mesmerize my kids through my various doctor’s appointments they’ve had to attend, or the DMV, or the occasional stint of last-minute work. But I’m really trying to avoid the iPad in restaurants, largely because I’m old enough and cheap enough to consider a restaurant meal a treat that should be enjoyed as a family. And our rule at home is “no electronics at the table,” and for consistency’s sake we enforce that when we’re out as well.
So when I went out to dinner a few months ago with a friend with same-age kids, I was thrilled to see that she had a little pouch (one of those purses-within-purses) filled with little toys to entertain our four boys.
I can hear the comments now: “Are toys that different from the iPad?” Yes, in my opinion, because we were all playing with them together, or the boys are playing with them together, rather than each kid having a silent, isolated experience behind their own screens. I think little toys are just an extension of playing, say, Hangman on a paper placemat. And second, yes, at some point they will be expected to sit at a table and carry on a conversation without any distraction at all. But for now, I’m relying on this cache of goodies to carry us through. I keep one or two things in my bag every time we go out and rotate in a new one every third or fourth restaurant visit.
1. A pocket Etch-a-Sketch. This kept my then-three-year-old occupied from ordering til the meal came, with only occasional advice and counsel from me.
2. A Magic 8 ball. The seven-year-old boys think this one is hilarious. The game becomes very surreal very quickly: “What kinds of weapons does the Tooth Fairy carry?”
3. A mini-Rubik’s cube. Or, for your older/more advanced kids, a regular Rubik’s cube.
4. Fairy crowns. Got a kid who’s into fairy stories? If you’ve got a little room to spread out, this will keep them occupied not only during the meal, but for that long stretch while you’re waiting to be seated.
5. Temporary tattoos. This pirate-themed pack would be catnip for my four-year-old. It would likely still work even for seven-year-old. For more free-hand type body ink I might try these tattoo pens.
6. Story cubes. This is billed as a “pocket-sized story generator” for kids 8 and up—though there’s no way I could leave my younger son out of it. I’m braced for a lot of stories about dragons and poop.
7. Slamwich. Caveat: This is likely a game that can get rambunctious, so it might be better for a restaurant where you have a lot of space and aren’t going to bother other patrons, like a picnic-table-at-a-crab-shack kind of joint. Or you can modify it to be non-competitive and non-slapping, as I do for my kids when things get out of hand.
8. Mad Libs. Ideal for the 8-10 year old in your life, though again my four-year-old would definitely contribute some nouns along the lines of poop and dragons.
9. Dog Pile, or other puzzles, for the spacially-minded kids. I like Kanoodleand Kanoodle Jr.
10. Bananagrams, for the word-minded older kids (and adults). There’s also a version for pre-schoolers.
11. Silly Putty. I chose Silly Putty over unicorn poop, because I think unicorn poop would prompt excited screams of disgust. Also I usually have a magazine or newspaper in my bag and my kids like to press the putty to the newsprint to copy the words.
12. Make your own necklaces. This is another one that hinges on what kind of restaurant you’re going to, as well as how dexterous your kids are. You definitely don’t want dozens of tiny beads rolling to the floor mid-appetizer, so assess your situation accordingly.
13. Pocket magnifying glass. There are many things to examine at a restaurant table: sugar packets, a dab of ketchup, one’s own fingernails.
14. Teeny-tiny mini-farm. Like the necklaces, this has a lot of pieces, but I don’t think they’re quite so roll-y. The major hazard for my son is that he wouldn’t want to pack them up when it came time to eat.
15. Paper airplanes. Obviously only if your kid is patient enough to wait until after the meal to throw it. For a less hurl-able folding project, try origami.
16. Spy kits. Depending on how big your bag is, you might want to scrap the box and just pack the components, or try these invisible ink pens.
17. Magic mazes. Anything with dinosaurs is A-OK by my son.
18. Re-stickable stickers. The Spiderman theme would be a big hit in my household, but Frozen would be a close second.
19. Hand-held pinball game. This is on my travel list for Christmas of things that will keep the kids occupied both in a restaurant and in the car.
20. U Fidget. This is a good one for kids who have trouble sitting still.
21. Memo game. This is a classic memory game, but it does involve rolling a die. If your kids won’t be convinced to just set the die down rather than chuckit, as mine do, you might want to try one of the classic Concentration games that are just cards.
22. Sketch and sniff notepad. I consider this to be a $3 tax on eating out—there’s very little replay here. My four-year-old would scrawl on every page, sniff them, and we’d throw it away at the end. Money well spent.
23. The classics: Crayons, paper, activity books, and a deck of cards. And for the little toddlers and babies, blocks that won’t clatter if they hit the floor.
Got any favorite non-digital activities for kids in public places? Let us know in the comments.