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5 Screen-Free Ways to Keep Kids Entertained in a Restaurant

Kids impatient? Here are five easy ideas to entertain them while you're waiting.

By Nicole Hickoff, publisher of Macaroni Kid Williamsport, Pa. September 8, 2021

Who doesn't love going out to eat? Someone else to cook, bring your food, and clean up? Sign me up!

I love going out to lunch or dinner with my husband and kiddos. However, the wait time for our meal can be a challenge. 

Mommy when will our food be here?  

Mommy, I am so hungry!  

Mommy, Mommy, Mommy ... Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!

Those are just a few phrases I hear often ... and I am sure you do too while out attempting to enjoy a meal.

How do you pass the time together without kids getting impatient and fussy? Here are five great kid-tested, parent-approved ideas and activities that keep my kids busy at restaurants and don't involve a cell phone or tablet.

1. What's Missing?

We learned this game from our furry friend Daniel Tiger! How to play: Each of us takes a turn taking something from the table and hiding it. Then we tell everyone they can open their eyes. Each participant looks around the table to see what is missing. The first to comment on the correct item gets to go next. Sometimes, we just take turns hiding and guessing the missing item. This has saved us from countless meltdowns and tantrums! D.T. would be so proud!

2. I Spy

I Spy is a classic game that is great in the car or in a restaurant and another activity we do if the wait for our lunch or dinner is taking too long for the littles. How to play: One person chooses an object within sight of everyone at the table. Then they say "I spy something green." Everyone takes a turn guessing what the object is. 

3. Coloring books

Coloring books have been, and continue to be, a saving grace for us! I have a bag in the car dedicated to coloring books, crayons, markers, and wipes (of course). When arriving at a restaurant, we make sure to pull out the bag and take it into the establishment. Since COVID, most places don't offer Crayons or coloring pages anymore, so we have learned to come prepared!

4. Alphabet game

This is a game that was taught to me while traveling a long distance somewhere (probably only to the mall, but to me it was a long distance). The Alphabet Game is simple and can be changed to fit the mood. How to play: Come up with a theme — like a picnic, for instance, and then start at the beginning of the alphabet and take turns. The first player begins by saying "I am going on a picnic and I am going to take (name something that starts with the letter A) an apple." The next person repeats the phrase and then adds in the next letter: "I am going on a picnic and I am going to take an apple and a banana." This continues till you get to the end of the alphabet (or the end of your wait). This is a great game to test memory. A fun game indeed, and sure helps to pass the time!

5. Hangman

Who doesn't remember playing hangman as a child? It was a favorite of mine and I am excited to modify it to play with my kids at a restaurant. How to play: The first player selects a word or phrase, then draws dashes to represent each letter in the word or phrase. The next player guesses a letter for the word or phrase, if they are wrong, the first player starts to add to the hangman drawing and it is the next player's turn. If the player is correct, the letter is written on the correct dashes and the guessing continues.

I hope these simple ideas and games come in handy next time your kids are getting wiggly while waiting at a restaurant!

Nicole Hickoff is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Williamsport, Pa.