It used to be that eating out at a restaurant was reserved for special occasions and usually involved a table for 2, a white tablecloth, and leaving the children at home with a sitter. But not anymore. If yours is like most families today, eating out has become a way of life. Americans have been dining out in droves—spending roughly half of their families’ total food budgets and consuming nearly a third of all calories away from home.
Along with this convenience-driven movement comes the added pressure of getting our children to perform. It is generally easier to treat the task of teaching children healthy, safe, and socially acceptable eating habits as a work in progress in the privacy of your own home. At a restaurant, however, your family’s mealtime matters will be on exhibit, and your child’s diet, his developing dining skills, and your patience are much more likely to be put to the test.
With this in mind, we have taken the liberty of ordering for you our top 10 tips to help keep your child’s eating habits from turning into frustrating public displays of disaffection and make your family’s meals out on the town both healthier and more enjoyable for everyone involved.
- Maintain a Healthy Attitude. Eating out requires a lot of social skills—skills that children must not only be taught, but be given the chance to practice. Each time you head out to a restaurant, be sure to remind yourself that being quiet and sitting still with one’s napkin across one’s lap throughout an entire meal doesn’t come naturally.
- Pick a Restaurant That Caters to Kids…at least when you’re first getting started in order to take some of the pressure off. How do you know a family-friendly restaurant when you see one? Just conjure up an image of a romantic candlelit dinner for 2 and then look for the complete opposite. If there’s a “Kids Eat Free” sign in the window, the hostess is ready and waiting with a box of crayons, and the level of background noise is high enough to drown out any unexpectedly loud outbursts, it’s a safe bet the setting will better suit your needs. Of course, don’t forget to check the menu to make sure you’re not having to sacrifice all hopes of nutrition in exchange for family-friendly surroundings, and remember that as your child’s mealtime manners develop, you can look forward to dining at restaurants that cater to a more mature crowd.
- BYOB. Although the stress of eating out at a restaurant can certainly leave some parents feeling like they could use a drink, this BYOB recommendation has nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. Instead, it is a reminder to bring your own backup. Bringing along a couple of mealtime accessories—whether that means a kid-friendly cup, plate, or utensils, or a coloring book and crayons. Simply anticipating your child’s needs can go a long way toward making the meal go smoothly and helping your child enjoy rather than ruin the ambience.
- Food. It is perfectly acceptable to bring along some food for your child, just so long as you don’t rely so heavily on the bring your own approach that you miss out on your child’s golden opportunity to try new things. This option is best reserved for times when you know your child is unlikely to be able to tolerate the wait, for infants who have not yet taken to table foods, and for particularly picky toddlers.
- Toys for Tots. When faced with a wait, a couple of books and a quiet toy or two can work wonders in helping to more peacefully pass the time—especially if they’re ones your child has not seen before. For babies, this may be as easy as supplying a rattle or rubber-tipped spoon, while for older children, a piece of paper and a few crayons is often all it takes to paint a prettier picture.
- Accessories. Bring bibs and bottles in particular, but if you’re headed to a restaurant that doesn’t provide cups with lids, a sippy cup might also be in order. Similarly, rubber-tipped spoons and toddler-friendly forks can help limit the amount of time you’ll spend trying to keep the restaurant’s unsafe utensils away from your young child.
- Keep in Mind That It’s About Time. Many of the problems children have behaving in restaurants can be traced back to having too much time on their hands. Boredom and impatience are not your friends. The longer children are expected to be on their best behavior, the more likely they are to become restless—especially if they have nothing to keep them occupied. Since the clock will be ticking from the minute you walk in the door, we recommend:
- Calling Ahead. Make reservations or take advantage of call ahead seating to increase your chances of being seated at a table rather than in the waiting area when you arrive.
- Going Early. By beating the rush, you’ll be less likely to have to wait for a table, service will hopefully be faster, your child will probably be less tired and crabby, and those seated around you will most likely be other families with young children who have exactly the same idea in mind.
- Ordering Efficiently. On those days when you’re running short on time or patience, skip the formality of ordering drinks first and get your full order in the first chance you get. If you’re anticipating the need for a quick getaway, you might even request the check be brought out with the meal.
- Clear Your Own Table. We realize that one of the clear-cut benefits of dining out is that you aren’t responsible for the cleanup afterward, but we’re actually talking about clearing the table before you eat. That’s because restaurants are seldom childproof to the extent necessary to keep your meal accident-free. Since the out-of-sight, out of- mind principle applies perfectly to this scenario, we suggest that as soon as you sit down to dine, scan the table for items that stand to disrupt your dinner and make sure they don’t fall into the wrong hands. We’ve listed a few of our personal favorites to get you started.
- Candles. No explanation needed, except to point out that kids seem to be drawn to candles like moths to light, and if you let your child play with them, he’s playing with fire.
- Knives. They are often put at every place setting around the table with complete disregard for the age of the person who is to be seated there. You’ll want to make sure you’re the first to grab for them. In fact, if your baby or toddler is not yet skilled in the use of utensils in general and is more likely to bang a fork and spoon than eat off of them, you’d be wise to grab those too. Instead, simply shift your child’s interest to the more age-appropriate utensils you’ve brought along.
- Sugar and Spice. While children rarely end up getting hurt while shaking the salt or playing with the packets of sweetener, a spoonful of sugar spread across the table does nothing to help the meal go down.
- Drinks. Even though spills are to be expected, they still tend to put a damper on the dining experience. You don’t need to stop ordering drinks—just make sure that they aren’t set at your child’s elbow or precariously perched too close to the edge of the table, and that they come with lids whenever they’re available.
- Don’t Just Say No. Regardless of what sort of socially challenging show your child is putting on, be aware that just saying no, with no teaching and no ramifications, has been shown to be of little use once your child has passed toddlerhood. Before you even go out, discuss what you expect of your child and what the clearly defined consequences will be if he is unable to behave during the meal. Whatever you choose to use as a consequence, just make sure you’re willing and able to follow through—even if that means leaving the restaurant well before dinner has been served.
- Take a Healthy Approach to Kids’ Meals. Restaurants offer a great opportunity to expose children to new foods and flavors, but they also run the real risk of serving as an excuse to check your nutritional goals at the door. According to one disconcerting survey, the top 5 most popular foods ordered at restaurants by children younger than 6 years were french fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers, and ice cream. This leads us straight to the topic of kids’ menus. No doubt about it, ordering off the kids’ menu can make your overall dining experience easier. The problem is that kids gravitate toward food they’re familiar with, and they quickly learn to order only off the kids’ menu—an ordering pattern that often becomes firmly entrenched. It also tends to ensure that almost 100% of their entrées will consist of a very narrow range of not-so healthy foods. Whenever possible, we suggest swapping out fries for a healthier side, skipping the enticing offer for free refills on soda altogether, and ordering milk instead. You can also encourage your child to broaden his horizons by looking beyond the confines of the kids’ menu by giving him the chance to taste foods off of your plate and/or ordering more nutritious fare off the adult menu.
- Contain Costs. Part of the temptation to let children order off the kids’ menu stems from the fact that it is almost always less expensive. For less than the cost of an entrée, you can often get your child a main course, a side dish, a drink, and a dessert. That said, kids’ menus rarely offer a good deal when it comes to nutrition. We therefore suggest giving the following alternative cost-containment measures a try as well.
- Share and Share Alike. To give your child exposure to a wider range of food choices while giving your wallet a break, consider sharing an adult entrée. This works particularly well if your child has a small appetite and your own entrées routinely go unfinished, or you have more than one child so they can share amongst themselves.
- Downsize. Ask if you are able to order your child a scaled-down serving of an adult-sized entrée at a reduced price. Appetizers can also double as less-expensive kid-sized entrées. Just be sure to check first to see if the appetizer section is dominated by fried and fatty foods.
- Two for the Price of One. Avoid the natural temptation to teach your child that he needs to clean his plate just because you paid for it. Especially with the oversized portions typically served in restaurants, take the approach of encouraging your child to eat only as much as he’s hungry for, and then take the rest home to serve at a later date. As an aside, this is a strategy that works as well for adults as it does for children.