There’s a lot to love about eating out at restaurants: good food, no cooking, and no dishes to clean up. However, eating out with kids is sometimes more stressful than it is relaxing. I try not to let what other people think affect my parenting too much, but when I’m out with my kids in public (especially at a restaurant) I feel a lot of pressure to prevent them from causing a scene.
A few months ago we were preparing for an epic week-long extended family vacation. I knew we would be eating out for every meal with a 2-year-old, 3-year-old, 4-year-old, and 5-year-old (all boys). I was feeling somewhere in between excited for the amazing trip and dreading how hard it would be to sit a bunch of exhausted toddlers at a table 3 times a day and ask them to wait for their food without throwing fits.
I decided to plan a bunch of “busy activities” to keep them happy at mealtimes. I searched the internet and pinned my heart out. There are millions of ideas for “busy bags” out there, but I specifically chose activities that wouldn’t be too hard to make, that I could easily fit four sets of into my bag each day, that the age range 2-5 could all enjoy, and that would work for sitting at a table in a restaurant. I made four sets of each activity and fit them all into a shoebox-sized plastic bin that I took with us.
In the end, I felt the busy bags were a great success. We enjoyed many pleasant meals as a family and the kids were excited to see what I would pull out of my bag each time we sat down.
We kept the bags after the trip, and they have been useful for church, doctor’s offices, and quiet time at home.
The activities I chose are below. Some of them are from Pinterest and I’ve included links, others are modifications to a different project that inspired me, and still others I completely made up myself. I’ve included affiliate links to materials I used so you can order them on Amazon (if you use the links it doesn’t cost you anything extra, but Amazon gives me a little that helps me pay to have this site!)
POPSICLE STICK PUZZLES
The printable has the puzzles come out 4 to a page, so the puzzle card is not true to popsicle stick size. I thought that might be a little too complex for the younger kids. I wanted them to be able to place the sticks on top of the puzzle cards. I ended up taking a screen shot of each puzzle, then printing the screen shots 2 to a page, and they came out a good size for matching.
I use this laminator ALL the time for all sorts of kid/personal/home projects.
I bought these popsicle sticks. Make sure you pick ones that have all the colors you need for the puzzles!
WIFFLE BALL AND PIPE CLEANERS
I love this one for creative freedom (there’s no real “objective”) and I didn’t have to prep a single thing! All you have to do is buy the plastic balls and pipe cleaners.
FOAM VELCRO CHAIN
(INSPIRED BY FELT BUTTON CHAIN)
I loved this idea but knew at least two of the toddlers couldn’t yet do buttons, so I opted to modify the activity. I cut strips of foam sheet and put Velcro dots on the ends (on opposite sides of the strips, so they connect). Each child made his own chain, then I encouraged them to connect all the chains together, which then turned into handcuffing each other.
SPY GLASS SPOT IT
Spot It is the first real “game” that our family started played together. I used a variation of the game to entertain the kids at dinner. Basically any two cards in the deck have one and only one matching picture on it. I didn’t want to risk ruining or losing the cards in a restaurant, so I made color copies of a few of the cards and cut them out. Each child got 3 Spot It cards and a mini magnifying glass (to make it even more exciting). I asked them to look at 2 of their cards and find the match. Then you can switch one of the cards for the other, etc. Then kids can trade cards for more variety.
TELESCOPE SCAVENGER HUNT
I brought each child the cardboard insert from a toilet paper roll that I had covered with colored paper. I let them decorate their “telescope” with stickers. Then I gave them a list of things to find on their (seated) scavenger hunt. We did shapes and colors. If you laminate the list, the kids can mark it off with markers and they can be erased and reused. We like using dry erase crayons. I used printables from here (scroll to the end of the post).
MAGNETIC PICK-UP STICK
I gave each child a couple magnets and a bag full of multi-colored paper clips. You can challenge them to sort by color or to create a pattern. They also loved picking up the clips from the table with the sticks. Can you see how long of a chain you can hold up with a magnet?
The magnetic tape is sticky on the backside, but it wasn't strong enough to hold to the popsicle stick. You'll need wood glue or superglue (hot glue won't work). This one is obviously a choking hazard for young children, use good judgment.
I already had jumbo popsicle sticks and clothes pins, so I added alphabet stickers for each child's name. I had to use glue to get them to stick, and if I did it again would probably modpodge them.
If you’re looking for some busy activities less crafty, more purchase-and-go options, here are some long-time favorites at our house:
Paint with water
Boogie board writing tablet