The Restaurant Dilemma: Screen Time or, What Are My Options Again?

“They were a family about our size… But every single one of them had their face in a phone.”

A few years ago, we took our first big vacation as a family. We scrimped and saved for months to pay for our trip. Our first night there we decided to go to dinner at this fun, jungle-themed restaurant. We sat on a balcony overlooking the street where a live band played music. Tiki torches lit up the dining area. Our little family of four sat wide-eyed, beaming, ready to enjoy our first vacation meal.


As we entertained our kids and waited for our meals to come out, I looked over at the table next to us. They were a family about our size, and they were dining amid the same circumstances: Beautiful weather, lovely lighting, great background music. But every single one of them had their face in a phone. They weren’t looking at each other or the scene around them.

Let me be clear: I’m not judging. My kids have tablets. Sometimes when we go out for dinner, we pay that extra 99 cents for the kids to play on the restaurant-provided system. Then, my husband and I can have a conversation with ease. For some reason, on our first night of vacation with our family, seeing this other family immersed in their screens struck me as sad. It was like a mirror that caused me to reflect and evaluate some ways that my family could be better connected.


“Let me be clear: I’m not judging. My kids have tablets.”

Shortly after that night, my husband and I set up a few goals to make sure we’re maximizing our time out with the kids (while ensuring they aren’t driving our table neighbors crazy). Below are just a few ways we keep the family talking to each other and our kids from getting antsy.

Note: We choose games and activities that are easily adaptable to age groups because our youngest has some learning delays. It is easier to keep her participating when she feels comfortable, too!

“Guess It”

We’re big game players and Disney nerds. One of our favorite games is to pick a ride, movie, or character, give three clues, and have everyone try to guess what we’re thinking. This is fun because you can adjust the clues to different age levels and you can pick topics that are of interest to your family.

The Alphabet or Name Game

The idea is that the first person picks a name that starts with an A, and the next person must choose a name that begins with the letter B and so on as you go around the table. A lot of people use celebrity names for this game, but with kids, you can go with foods, movies, songs, or characters. This is a fantastic way to practice the alphabet and memory-based learning, too.

What’s Missing?

One person is it. Everyone else closes their eyes. The person who is it selects something from the table and hides it next to them. Then those with their eyes closed must guess what is missing. The kids can be surprisingly tricky when it’s their turn to take something from the table… just a fair warning.


Name That Tune

You hum a few notes of a song, and everyone guesses. We reserve this one for noisier restaurants because, of course, we don’t want to annoy our neighbors.

Would You Rather

Would you rather be a wizard or a Jedi? (Believe it or not, this sparked a heated debate in our family… I told you, we’re nerds!) The questions can be silly or serious. It’s a terrific way to learn more about your family, and it can lead to some engaging discussions too.

Bring Coloring Books

The restaurant-provided coloring mats are fun, but sometimes they don’t last long. Think about keeping a small bag of restaurant-only activity books and coloring pads you can whip out to keep the little ones busy. Because they only get to use these specific coloring books when you eat out, they won’t be too bored by their options.

Talk About Your Day!

It may sound trite, but some of my favorite memories are sitting around the dinner table talking about our day or week. Sometimes work, activities, friends or school keeps us apart a good amount of the time, so it’s easy to lose track of each other. Talking about what made us happy that week (and what didn’t) allows us to reconnect. This type of conversation keeps the little ones entertained for at least a few minutes to ensure a calm experience without resorting to screen time. ★

Are you looking for more ways to avoid screen time while going out to eat? Sign up for Mommy Hacks today! This monthly subscription box service features products to make everyday parenting activities (like mealtime!) much more zen.


Angela Brown headshot

Angela Brown is a freelance business writer in Salt Lake City. She’s worked as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. When she’s not creating content for her clients, she enjoys playing games with her family, planning vacations to Disneyland, and plotting ways to convince her husband to move to the beach.


  1. kat

    Love this list! As my kids get older, I look forward to mealtime games and these are great ideas. Also, I don’t believe in bringing devices out of the home, so games will definitely help!

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