The first time we took our oldest out to eat she was 6 months old. It was awful. She cried a lot during the meal, which meant my husband and I took turns taking her out for a walk around the parking lot of the restaurant so we could finish our food before taking her home and putting her to bed. It’s been six years since that dinner out, and we honestly haven’t done a lot of restaurant dining as a family since. I think we were slightly traumatized by that experience. It felt a lot easier to order takeout, go to Chick-fil-A, or simply cook at home. When my husband and I decided we really needed a break from the same old, same old, we opted to hire a babysitter instead of taking our kids along. The children are getting older now. Our youngest just turned 2. Sitting through a restaurant meal has become a more realistic goal, and it’s something we’re ready to do more of as a family. That being said, having slightly older kids still hasn’t made restaurant dining a walk in the park. It’s hard to wait for your food when you’re young, hungry, and full of energy. Plus, when the food finally does arrive, it seems like our kids always finish their plates in record time—while we’re left trying to keep them entertained so we can finish our meals. What do we want? A more enjoyable dining experience. How’re we going to get it? With these 38 screen-free products from Amazon that are perfect for distracting young kids.
1. Water Wow! Reveal Activity Pads
According to a friend of mine, these activity pads from Melissa & Doug are the end-all, be-all of road trip activities. I suspect they’d be great for family meals, too. Using a pen with refillable water storage, little diners can reveal the colors of each picture on the pad. Water Wow! Reveal Activity Pads are a low-mess painting option, and they’re reusable, so they’re basically every parent’s dream. When wet, the outlines of the pictures fill with color. When the water dries, the paper returns to white with black outlines.
2. Silly Faces Magnetic Tin
If your kids are over the age of 3, this on-the-go activity is a great way to keep them entertained while you finish your meal in peace (or at least without screaming). With blank faces as their canvases, your kiddos can create works of art by placing ears, eyes, and accessories wherever their hearts desire. The Silly Faces Magnetic Tin comes in a set of two and includes 49 magnets, giving your kids plenty of different ways to fill their time once they’ve pushed away their chicken strips and moved on to making “free lemonade.” Amazon reviewers love this toy, and more than one recommends it as an easy way to keep kids busy while on the go.
3. Magica Clutching Toy
I’m honestly not sure if it’s harder to keep a busy toddler seated at the table or an infant happy during the course of the meal. Younger kids might be easier to contain, but they’re also more prone to emotional outbursts when they get too bored or tired. The Magica Clutching Toy is a beautiful, wooden collection of large, rainbow-colored beads attached to each other on an elastic string. It’s perfect for an older infant who can sit and grasp on their own. Your baby can shake it, shape it, and gum on it while you and your co-parent enjoy your food.
4. Little Chef Activity Book
One of the difficulties of bringing toys to the restaurant is keeping track of the many pieces that can be dropped, thrown, or lost during the meal. What’s so great about a toy like the Melissa & Doug Little Chef Activity Book is that it includes all kinds of fun, interactive activities with parts that all remain attached to the book. Made from soft fabric, this busy book is perfect for older babies and toddlers. Chef-themed counting activities fill the pages. Your baby can decorate a slice of cake, count the scoops on an ice-cream cone, or even build a sandwich with felt and fabric pieces attached with a string.
5. Learn to Dress Kitty
My little ones love to zip, button, tie, and more, and I love that activities like these encourage the development of their fine motor skills. Learn to Dress Kitty by ALEX includes 11 different activities for dressing this soft toy kitty, like tying her shoes and buttoning her buttons. At 21 inches long, this is a larger toy, so it probably needs a spot in a chair or the diaper bag once your food arrives. That being said, it isn’t so big that you’d feel uncomfortable bringing it into a restaurant to distract an antsy child.
6. WikkiStix Travel Playset Craft Kit
Our family is new to the world of WikkiStix, and we’re kind of in love. These bendy, twisty, brightly colored sticks can be molded and shaped into flat and three-dimensional objects without leaving a trace of mess behind. Basically, they’ve got all the characteristics of PlayDoh that kids love without the untidiness that moms hate. The WikkiStix Travel Playset comes in a hard carrying case and includes 144 sticks total in 16 different shades. A booklet full of activities and two connect-the-dot activity sheets are also included in this take-along kit.
7. Colorforms Fun Pack
Since stickers are endlessly popular with kids, playing with them makes a great activity while you’re waiting for food to arrive. Stickers are also a great distraction to pull out when the kids decide they’re ready to go, even though you’re still not through with your entree. Colorforms Fun Packs aren’t just any old stickers, either. They’re restickable. Included in the each package is a folding backdrop for placing, peeling, and moving the stickers to create new scenes. No matter what your kids are into, you can probably find a Colorform they’ll love. Choose from PJ Masks, Barbie, Peppa Pig, and more. At $3.53 each, this restaurant activity can’t be beat!
8. Toy Story Tin Pinball Game
You might remember handheld tin pinball games from your own childhood. This collection features updated themes, including modern Disney favorites like Toy Story, Finding Dory, and Cars. Kids ages 4 and older can pull back the lever, then tilt and tip to collect points. This game is completely contained. It’s 10 inches tall, so don’t confuse it with those cheap, small knockoffs you can buy at the dollar store. Still, the toy is small enough to throw in a purse or diaper bag, take along on a car rides, or carry into restaurants for a fun few minutes of quiet play.
9. Toysmith U-Fidget Toy
If you’ve got a kid with the fidgets, take a toy like the Toysmith U-Fidget with you on your next trip out to eat. This toy looks like a ton of fun, with 21 pastel triangles attached by tiny hinges. To play with this fidget toy, your kiddo only needs to flip the triangles. There are endless shapes they can create by changing the direction of each triangle.
10. Plan Toys Memo Game
We’ve been playing memory games with our oldest since she was around 3 years old. Most of the games we have are big and bulky, requiring a lot of table space and leaving behind a considerable mess. What I love about the Plan Toys Memo Game is that it is so petite. Kids roll a small wooden die with a different color on each side and then choose from 12 little pegs to find the number they rolled. For our family, small games have been a good way to turn family dinners out into more interactive experiences. Instead of simply keeping kids entertained, they build meaningful interactions among the entire crew.
11. Toysmith Peg Game
If, like me, you spent many family meals in a popular home cooking chain called Cracker Barrel, playing the Tricky Triangle or Peg Game probably stirs up a little nostalgia. I spent plenty of time passing this game between myself and my siblings during my childhood, and I love the idea of introducing my kids to the same mealtime challenge. If you’re not familiar with the game, the goal is to get rid of all but one peg from the small triangular board by jumping pegs. It’s surprisingly difficult and requires a ton of concentration, so it’s perfect for a quiet dinner out!
12. Dover Little Activity Books
For a few years now, we’ve stocked up on these Dover Little Activity Books and hid them away for times when we were desperate to keep our kids entertained. These tiny, pocket-sized books each contain a different interactive activity, usually involving stickers. Build your own cupcake, decorate a butterfly, or spot the differences between two images. One trick we’ve employed with the Dover Books is to keep a handful tucked away for as long as possible during the meal. They’re our Hail Mary, allowing us to introduce a brand new activity just as the chaos reaches a fever pitch.
13. Play Smart Vehicle Picture Puzzles
This book is pretty involved, full of picture puzzle for kids over the age of 3. According to the seller, this book was created from a teaching style used in Japan for many years. It’s all about using fun to learn new things. These puzzles encourage problem-solving while following a vehicle theme. Your kids will count the boats, guide a rowboat through a maze, and build a road from panels that must be placed just so. Bring along a pair of safety scissors if you take this one to your next dinner out; many of the puzzles involve cutting of some kind.
14. Table Topics
Sometimes it’s nice to create a dinner environment that allows parents to talk while kids quietly color and play—but it’s often more desirable to find a low-energy activity that encourages interaction between all members of the family. It’s fun to find something that can turn a normal dinner out into a time of family bonding. Table Topics aren’t new. They’ve long been a popular way to stir up conversation, and this set created for kids is perfect for the restaurant table. Draw a card from the stack and ask kids to answer in turn. Questions like “What was your favorite Halloween costume?” and “What makes you feel better when you’re sick?” are sure to make for enjoyable and meaningful conversation.
15. Rainbow Scratch Mini Notes
This past week, we picked up a package of scratch art sheets after a few rainy days stuck indoors. We’ve been using them at home, but I can see how bringing them along to shake up your typical kids’ menu coloring sheet would change the dynamic of a family meal out. I love this set of Scratch Art Mini Notes from Melissa & Doug. The small size makes it simple to throw into a purse or diaper bag and dig out when you need to keep a rowdy set of kids entertained.
16. Silly Putty
Dinner-time peace and quiet doesn’t have to be complicated. Silly Putty is a classic, and for good reason! Kids can mold shapes from this mess-free, pliable putty. They can smash it into their kids’ menu and watch the text transfer. They can press it onto flatware or other small objects to make molds. One word of warning from someone who learned this lesson the hard way: Set a ground rule early that throwing or bouncing silly putty needs to be reserved for outdoors. It’s never allowed at the dining table!
17. Left Right Center
Left Right Center is a dice game for anyone over the age of 5. The goal of this game is to be the last player with chips, but hanging onto your chips is a game of chance. Rolling the dice decides if you will pass your chips left or right, or push them into the center pot. This game is wildly popular on Amazon, with over 1,590 reviews and an aggregate score of five stars. Reviewers suggest the fun idea of swapping out the chips for other objects, like M&Ms, but we’d recommend saving that option for dessert!
18. Spot It!
My first two kids are just now reaching an age that they’re old enough to be interested in card games, and that’s a whole lot of fun! Available in both a Junior and 7+ version, Spot It! is going to be the next take-along game we add to our family’s stash. This is a visual perception game. Images are scattered across round playing cards. The goal is to find the one image that two cards have in common as quickly as possible. The cards come in a tin case for easy transportation and quick clean-up when your dinner arrives. I honestly can’t believe we’ve only just learned about this game, since it has five stars and over 6,650 reviews on Amazon.
19. Tegu Travel Kits
We don’t own these magnetic wooden blocks, but a friend recently convinced me to place an order. I plan to pull them out when my kids need a little distraction. This Tegu Travel Kit includes eight wooden blocks, all magnetic, that can be stacked and shaped in a variety of combinations. Since this set comes with a felt pouch, it’s great for taking along to a restaurant, where it’ll provides simple entertainment for kids of all ages. Choose from eight different color themes, including mahogany, tints, and blues.
20. Unifix Cubes
If you’re looking for a stacking and building activity for the dinner table, but would rather spend a little less cash, this Unifix Cubes 100 Piece Set might be the better option for you. This set includes blocks of 10 different colors, and each block can be stacked on another. Included in this kit is an activity book for guided play. In addition to building, Unifix Cubes work great for counting and math games.
21. Crayola Color Wonder Kit
Color Wonder has become super-popular among parents because it’s entirely mess-free. The magic markers included in this kit only color on the provided coloring sheets, so you won’t have to scrub marks off of tiny fingers, the tablecloth, or restaurant dishes. Crayola Wonder Kits come in a ton of different themes, like the animal-themed version linked below. All 30 pieces of this art kit are contained in a hard carrying case, so it’s ideal for restaurant entertainment.
Let’s be honest: Keeping track of 30-piece kits might not always be what you’re hoping for in restaurant entertainment. If you’d like an art project with fewer pieces, the AquaDoodle Travel Doodle might be more in line with what you’d like to buy. This doodle pad includes two pieces, a folding portfolio, and a refillable water pen. The pen changes the color of the surface of the portfolio, allowing for mess-free doodling that disappears when the doodle pad dries.
23. Jaq Jaq Mess-Free Chalkboard
My kids love drawing with chalk, but chalk comes with a lot of mess. When we discovered this mess-free, portable option from Jaq Jaq a few years back, we were sold. Available in a variety of prints, these Doodle It Books are compact and ideal for taking along on trips to the restaurant, medical waiting rooms, or airplanes. Included with the chalkboard sketchbook are four ButterStix, which are the dust-free chalk pieces from Jaq Jaq.
24. Spiral-Bound Sketchbook
Keep it basic. Bring a sketchbook along! Children have amazing imaginations and don’t always need a lot of hand-holding to keep themselves entertained. This spiral-bound sketchbook is only 7 inches by 10 inches, which means it should fit easily in a diaper bag or small purse. Don’t be afraid to offer a few prompts if your child is having trouble getting started. Bring along some colored pencils or crayons, of course!
25. Twistable Crayons
These twistable crayons pair perfectly with the spiral-bound sketchbook above. Instead of worrying about sharpening dull pencils or replacing crayons snapped between clumsy fingers, these twistable crayons sharpen themselves. This pack includes eight different colors of Crayola crayons. Because of their plastic casing, they’re break-resistant. When your child runs out of crayon, simply twist to reveal more colorful potential.
26. Take-Along Shape Sorter
Without a doubt, my youngest child is the hardest to keep content during a dinner out. Toddlers just hate to hold still, and a meal at a restaurant can go on for much longer than the at-home equivalent. Because of this, it’s really important to bring along age-appropriate activities when you want to have an enjoyable meal. This Take-Along Shape Sorter is a portable version of an old classic. Older infants and toddlers are challenged to shove shapes through their matching holes. A handle and zippable soft case sets this option apart from others.
27. Travel Legos
All three of my kids spend hours each week with their Legos, but the idea of taking them out of the house, into the van, and then into a restaurant makes my head spin. Knowing this set of Travel Legos comes in a hard carrying case makes me feel a little better about the idea of bringing Legos along for our next family dinner. This set of Legos contains 213 blocks, which is just enough for a few really great builds without totally trashing the table before you even start eating.
28. Melissa & Doug Reusable Tape
Reusable stickers meet washi tape in this Melissa & Doug Tape Activity Book. This kit includes a spiral-bound notebook and four rolls of reusable washi tape. Activities include a fun variety of scenes, like creating the spokes of a bicycle, decorating a lollipop, or creating laces for shoes. According to the sellers of this product, it isn’t just good for entertainment. It also helps young kids develop fine motor skills and improve their hand-eye coordination. Hand it over for independent play, or turn it into a parent-child activity by quizzing them on colors and shapes.
29. Wooden Lacing Cheese Toy
The only thing better than a cheese-shaped toy is cheese itself, but this fun lacing toy just might keep your toddlers happy enough to prevent them from getting hangry. This wooden toy looks just like a wedge of cheddar. Holes cover the surface, and your child can use a lacing stick attached to a string to work their way through the maze to the other side. The reason a toy like this is so dang perfect as a take-along is that all the parts are attached to each other, so you don’t have to worry about chasing pieces across the restaurant floor.
30. Kids Mad Libs
Mad Libs is a game my kids and I all enjoy, so we love to bring these books along when we go out to eat. Typical Mad Libs are a little too complex for young kids, but this version was created with little brains in mind. Even younger kids who can’t spell or write will get a kick out of chiming in with their answers while you transcribe their responses. Beware! Breaking out this game may introduce fart jokes to the dinner table.
31. Kids Mazes Book
This book is literally everything, or at least everything mazes. Bring a copy along for your puzzle- and maze-obsessed kids for a quiet activity while they wait for their meal (or wait for you to wrap yours up). In this book, you will find 144 colored pages of mazes of varying difficulties. Based on the reviews, some of the mazes are simple enough for kids age 6 and older, while others are challenging enough for teens and adults.
32. Comotomo Silicone Baby Teether
Pro-parenting tip: Never leave home without an extra change of clothes and a teether. You never know when a diaper change is going to go badly, or when a perfectly happy baby will start experiencing teething pain. This Comotomo Baby Teether is a great option for baby to gum on during a meal since it has an easy-to-grasp handle. It’s made from silicone, which means when (not if!) your baby drops it on the floor, you can hide it away and then boil it when you get home.
33. Baby Animals Black and White
Books illustrated with pictures in high contrast color schemes, like black and white, are easily seen by the developing eyes of a young baby. Baby Animals Black and White features eight different baby animals on each of its pages. It’s a board book, so it’s easy for smaller hands to hang on to. It’s also a lot of fun to read together, at home or out at your favorite restaurant.
34. Bubbles Plush Buckle Toy
I’m always amazed by what will hold a toddler’s attention and what won’t. I can try my hardest to keep them entertained with talking, silly faces, and funny noises with no luck, but if I pull out something that snaps, zips, or buckles, they’ll stay endlessly happy. This Plush Buckle Toy, which is apparently named Bubbles, is a baby-blue figure with rainbow-colored buckles hanging from each side. The bright colors will keep kids’ attention and the challenge of getting the buckles to snap will keep them focused while everyone else chows down.
35. Velvet Animal Finger Puppets
Puppets are my last resort. I hate being responsible for acting out scenes and making weird noises, but they almost always work when I need to cheer up a crabby kid. Thankfully, my husband is a much better sport when it comes to acting the fool to get a smile out of our kids. These Velvet Finger Puppets are small enough to keep in the bottom of your bag so you can fish them out when things take a turn for the worse. Ten different animals are included in this set, including a hippo, a cow, and a frog. Since they fit on your fingers, they’re definitely a restaurant-friendly toy.
36. Animal Figurines
It didn’t take long after my second was born to realize that the toys that kept my older daughter’s attention weren’t going to work with this one. While my oldest was into puzzles and challenges, my youngest loves pretend play. Sometimes, making dinner out easier is all about trying different things until you find what works for each child. Once I realized my younger daughter preferred little people and animals for acting out scenes at the dinner table, we were able to eat happily as a family. This set of Animals Figures is identical to the set we pull out any time she gets bored.
37. Flappy the Elephant Plush Toy
Sometimes my babies just need to bring a friend along to make their meal a little more fun. Each of my kids have a take-along stuffie—we have a Lalaloopsy, an Olaf, and a Bitty Baby that all accompany us on outings on a regular basis. If your baby doesn’t have a stuffie they love, consider picking one toy to bring along every time you head out to a family meal. This battery-operated plush figure is adorable and perfect for getting some giggles and smiles out of a cranky baby. The floppy ears on this stuffed elephant flip and flop, covering his eyes for an impromptu game of peekaboo.
38. Melissa & Doug Felt Friends On-The-Go
Melissa & Doug is a company that’s really corned the portable toy market for young kids. The Felt Friends On-The-Go series comes with 142 felt stickers in different shapes and colors for building 12 different felt animals. If the phrase “142 felt stickers” makes you twitch a little, there is something you should know—the creators of Melissa & Doug designed this kit to be incredibly portable and easy to pack up. A resealable compartment keeps all loose parts dependably contained.