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Every parent’s been there: You’re so excited for the big family night out at the pizza place when one of the kids gets bored, picks a fight with a sibling, and veers straight toward Tantrum City. Your nice, quiet dinner and relaxation are quickly thrown out the window.
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Having successful restaurant outings with kids is all about preparation. Bringing along a stash of books, activities, and things for your kids to do can make it possible for you to have an adult conversation with a partner or a friend.
While tablets are always a popular option, we’ve put together a list of 42 screen-free games, books, and table-friendly activities perfect for dining out. Use it as a sort of checklist for what to bring next time you’re considering a family-friendly night on the town.
1. A suitcase to fit everything
You’ve got to plan your kid’s snacks ahead for a successful night out, from bringing the right foods to the right sippy cup, and it’s no different for their non-food based entertainment.
Pack their activities thoughtfully, with their insight. Kids love a neat box to pack, so providing them with a portable tote like a Meri Meri suitcase gives them guidelines in terms of size and scale of items they can bring with them to the restaurant. Remind them that this is their special box, and exercise veto power over items you think might be too noisy (i.e. blocks that will no doubt clatter all over the floor) or too hard to play with in a small, seated space.
2. Self-contained, non-breakable toys
Sure, you could just give your highchair bound 1-year-old a spoon at a restaurant and call it a day, but we all know that you’ll be picking that spoon up off the ground every two minutes and then questioning your choice when, after the 10th time on the floor, your kid puts that spoon in their mouth.
For little ones, we love restaurant toys that are self-contained, relatively indestructible, and easy to just throw in your diaper bag or purse.
Mudpuppy’s ring flash cards are always a good option for little hands, with its grippable ring and series of colorful objects to check out. The card sets come in a variety of topics, too, from baby’s first words to “how are you feeling today?” Maisonette even offers a “little learner” set packaged with a set of four board books for under $30, and if offered judiciously, that could keep a kid occupied for many, many lunches and dinners.
Speaking of books, Indestructibles are where it’s at, especially in your kid’s early years. They can be twisted, torn at, chewed on, and submerged in water, and they’ll survive. There are dozens available on sites like Amazon, but a good place to start would be this five-book set based on nursery rhymes.
Lastly, for littles, we love a nice set of black-and-white flash cards. We’re particularly partial to the Wee Gallery animal alphabet set, which comes in a nice box and is great both for animal-obsessed kids who have a few words under their command and little tinies who might just be into a little visual stimulus.
3. Tiny puzzles
A good puzzle can keep a kid occupied for tens of minutes, but it can be a struggle to find table space in a restaurant to figure one out—or to tote along a wooden puzzle without losing all the pieces along the way. Mudpuppy has figured out a way around that quandary and is producing all manner of portable puzzles from 12-piece “pouch puzzles” packed in their own zippable pouches to 36-piece “puzzles to go,” which are only 12-by-9 inches when completed. There are dozens of these puzzles to pick from, including transportation, animals, and Eric Carle-themed options. Throw two in your diaper bag and you’ll be set until the meal comes.
If even 12 pieces are a little too daunting, consider puzzle sticks, which can be neatly wrapped up with a rubber band and are a little like popsicle sticks with a picture on them. Mudpuppy makes great sets of those as well, including “I Can Be Anything!” Each package contains four different pictures, meaning just one box could get you by depending on how good your kid is at figuring them out.
If you’re still thinking, “I just know we’re going to lose these pieces,” there’s always a magnetic puzzle, like this two-sided one featuring cute cats and dogs.
4. Crafting with boundaries
It is possible to craft without using glue, scissors, or dozens of tiny beads or pieces of paper. You just have to get a little creative. Tons of parents swear by an emergency container of Play-Doh in a restaurant situation. This affordable set of 10 one-ounce containers can go a long way when split between multiple purses, backpacks, and glove compartments.
Also in that world of throwback joy is a mini Etch-A-Sketch. Not a craft item per se, but always welcomed by the creative, this 4-inch model can fit in any purse and would keep a kid busy for at least 10 minutes—or just enough time to enjoy whatever adult beverage you might have ordered. Better yet, get two and doodle along with them.
A newer kiddo favorite is scratch-off paper, which looks black to the naked eye, but when doodled on with a little wooden stick reveals all manner of rainbow colors. Amazon sells a notepad of 20 pieces of the paper complete with dowels, and though the black scratched-off material can seem a touch messy, it’s easy enough to sweep onto a napkin.
5. Good old coloring
There’s a reason a lot of restaurants provide kids with crayons: Coloring is a time-honored dining room tradition. That hasn’t changed, though it’s always nice to come prepared with your own supplies, lest that three-pack that’s always available seems a little lacking. Crayola’s twistable crayons come in a pack of 12 and never buckle or need sharpening.
Pair that with a spiral bound sketchbook like this 75-page number from Maisonette, and your kid’s ready for hours of coloring fun. Teach them tic-tac-toe and pen the pig, and they’ll be happy as a clam.
6. Water pens
Almost every restaurant will happily throw you a free glass of water. That’s why we love keeping kids busy with water pens, which are like crayons, but with slightly less autonomy. Just fill your kid’s pen up with H2O and, as they swipe the water across their book’s pages, they can reveal the art contained within. Melissa & Doug has long owned this market with their Water Wow series, and for good reason: Their spiral bound books are affordable, easy to use, and are fairly durable. A three-pack of the Water Wow books is under $20 on Amazon and has great reviews, with almost 9,000 people giving it an average of 4.8 stars.
If you’ve torn through all the Melissa & Doug options and are looking for something with a little more adorable artistic flare, both Djeco and Bright Stripes are in the water pen game as well, with Djeco producing hidden garden and hidden woods sets, and Bright Stripes selling its Magic Reveal Pads.
Magnetic play kits are restaurant classics, because—for the most part—they’re self-contained, easy to keep together, and require almost no table space. There are dozens upon dozens of neat magnetic play kits on the market, from Mudpuppy’s Make-A-Face to Floss & Rock’s Sofia, a magnetic version of a paper doll that comes with everything from a first aid bag to an artist’s palette. Mudpuppy makes a similar sort of fashion play set, except involving a cat and space.
If you’ve got more than one kid or want to spend a little time gaming with your kid, Floss & Rock also makes magnetic game sets that pack up in a neat little tin. We love the space one, which has snakes and ladders, tic-tac-toe, a word search, and a fun magnetic scene to decorate, all in the one box.
And if your kid is more into world or creature building, there are a number of cool magnetic play sets out there for them, as well, including Bigjigs’ Mag-Play Meadow farm, Mudpuppy’s mix-and-match dinosaurs, or even Mudpuppy’s Monster Mash-Up magnetic playset, in which your kiddo can mess around with creating their own funny Frankenstein.
8. An alphabet board
If your kid’s shown interest in letters or is starting to learn to write, spend your restaurant time reinforcing that interest by giving them a PicassoTiles two-sided alphabet board, which lets them use a magnetic pen to trace over both upper-case and lower-case letters, resulting in a pretty satisfying quiet clicking sound. With a slot for the pen and a nifty little carrying handle, it’s wildly portable, something that’s no doubt helped it earn an average 4.6 stars on Amazon. As one user raved, “It’s great for my preschooler to practice his letters in a way that he actually thinks is fun.“
Stickers can be a fun restaurant item, provided the stickers don’t end up stuck all over your table, booth, and place setting. There are a number of great reusable sticker kits on the market that function as play sets where kids can build worlds, match pictures, and do stuff kids think is hilarious, like putting a dog on a woman’s head. Melissa & Doug is a huge player in the reusable sticker game, producing sets like the Cool Careers book, which has 101 different reusable stickers that kids can place over 10 different spiral bound scenes. You can keep that theme of “the people in your neighborhood” going with their My Town set, which has over 200 stickers and five different scenes.
Another solid option from Melissa & Doug is one of their reusable stickers dress-up pads, which can be a little one-note (“Here are princess dresses to put on these girls!”), but retail for under $4 so they are a good buy all the same.
For kids who love stickers and eye spy, Melissa & Doug offers Seek & Find sticker pads, which allow kids to place stickers into scenes in a way that’s a little akin to a matching game. These stickers and sheets are unfortunately not reusable, but since they’re black-and-white, they do also act as coloring sheets post sticker-placement.
10. Lacing cards
Lacing cards are incredibly portable, slyly educational, and an all-around great bet for restaurant entertainment. Wee Gallery, of the black-and-white flashcards above, makes an adorable set of six woodland lacing animals, while Melissa & Doug offers a set of five double-sided, lace-friendly pets. One Amazon reviewer notes the latter “keeps [her daughter] occupied for 30-45 minutes at a time,” which definitely sounds promising in terms of dining room endurance.
While you probably don’t want to bring a big set of noisy blocks or Magna-Tiles into a restaurant, there are good options for kids who love to build. Lego offers a pretty nifty self-contained “Creative Suitcase” set for kids on the go, complete with just about enough pieces to make something cool between the appetizers and the entree.
If your kid’s more of a Magna-Tiles fiend, Magformers does make a set for kids three and up that, at 40 pieces, isn’t too unruly. The pieces are all animal-inspired, and your kiddo can work on putting together a moose or a penguin just like they see on the box.
Finally, for beginning builders, there’s Tegu’s 8-piece set of magnetic blocks, which Amazon users absolutely rave about. It’s got almost 2,000 reviews on site and an average 4.8 stars, with one user writing, “Our 11-month-old was fascinated with just two blocks for almost two hours.”
12. Polly Pocket
Polly Pocket dolls have been on the market since 1983, enchanting kids with their tiny, self-contained worlds. It’s that compact nature that makes them perfect for restaurants, with sets like the Hedgehog Cafe that fits two dolls, two pets, and a whole world of furniture into a compact about the size of a wristlet.
13. A magnifying glass
If your kid’s interested in the natural world, engineering, and how things are made, a good old-fashioned magnifying glass could be a great restaurant item. They can use it to investigate the pepper shaker, look at the way the grain swirls on the table, and even examine their fried rice or macaroni and cheese when it arrives. There’s lots to see when you look at the little details of the world, and a magnifying glass can help an inquisitive kid do just that.
14. Games without screens
Oftentimes when you see kids at restaurants, they’re glued to an iPad or Fire tablet, playing whatever the game of the moment is. We’re into restaurant games, but maybe with a little less screen time or a little more interaction. There are plenty of good ones out there that are portable, creative, and good for solo or family play.
For tables with a little bit of space, Manhattan Toy Company’s Making Faces memory game comes packaged in a handy portable tube and is a great way for little hands to get some tactile play that also reinforces the different emotions.
If you’ve got two kids or a parent who’s willing to play, author and illustrator Taro Gomi’s Funny Fish card game is a stylish version of Go Fish that comes packaged in a neat little tin. With 40 different brightly colored cards depicting fictional animals like the leaf fish and the scribble octopus, it’s a game that’s as charming as it is handy.
If you like the card format, but are looking for something more interactive, try Little Talk’s conversation cards, which offer jumping off points for chats between kids and their parents, like “How do you feel about making mistakes?” and “What’s your favorite treat?” It’s a nifty little thing to have in your purse or tote, and, frankly, could be enjoyed by two adults just as much.
Another card game adored by kids and parents alike is Spot It!, which encourages observational skills and only requires two players to get a game going. Better yet, the average game time is 10 minutes, meaning kids can get a few rounds in before the food starts rolling out.
Finally, if you’ve got a kid who really just can’t tear themselves away from their portable gaming devices, give them a new one to mess around with. Kiko+ & GG’s Wakka game is a throwback to the handheld water-jet games some of us grown-ups played in the ‘80s. Using the two buttons, you zoom the little rings around in the water with the aim of getting them on the posts. Maybe your kids will even let you try—provided they ever put it down.
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