“No, you cannot have chips again, it is not healthy. Why don’t you choose something else from the menu? We are at a restaurant, try something new. All right, enough, we will just order some chips! Just sit down for a minute!”
Does this sound like you? Numerous families I work with do not get the enjoyment they deserve out of going to restaurants, if they go at all. Ethnic restaurants are often out of a question and going to the same Italian has become a chore. Is your child ever going to graduate from the children’ menu? Is your child going to be confident going out with friends at cafes and restaurants? These are some questions worth asking yourself. The alternative is to embrace eating out as a family and make it work. Here are 10 tips for you to do just that.
Embrace eating out
Going out to a restaurant with children, even if they are fussy eaters, should not be a chore or a stressful event. What if you chose to embrace eating out and reap the benefits, including educational ones, in the long term? In restaurants families will:
- enjoy a moment eating in a different setting (including unfamiliar surroundings)
- strengthen family bond
- engage in conversation
- learn to adjust behaviour in public spaces
- be exposed to and eventually taste different foods
- feel special.
If your children are young and not too entrenched in their eating
- Choose your restaurant wisely. Kristy of Kids out for dinner has been listing restaurants that are children friendly here.
- Spell your expectations clearly before going out: we will go to this restaurant…I expect that you will love it/sit well/behave. It’s always easier if your kids know what is happening next.
- Be reassuring to the anxious children: “the food is delicious I hear”, “I will order something you will love”.
- Time the meal so children are rested and hungry when food arrives, but not exhausted, famished and hysterical.
- Bring pencils and paper for before and after meal, a patience building exercise.
- Select from the menu: small children have simply no knowledge about food. Choose a combination of liked and less known food. For example, your child likes rice, choose a risotto. These days, children’s menus are evolving away from the cheap and nasty, but you may also order an adult dish to share between children.
- Give limited choice to children: you can have this “risotto or this pasta” still enables them to have a say but you are providing structure.
- Organise a monthly visit to a surprise restaurant, where everyone picks a dish to share and takes turn to taste. Then rate your dishes and your restaurants. A family I worked with did this successfully here.
If your child is an extreme fussy eater and all of the above appears impossible.
- Try a buffet type of restaurant where kids can assemble foods that they are comfortable with. Alternatively order something they can work with, for example, your child only eats white rice: order Cantonese rice and ask your child to do the sorting out. It challenges and exposes your child without putting pressure to eat the offending foods. Now if you and your child are stuck with chips, as in the opening story, then the restaurant is no place for the argument. Now everyone is getting stressed, your child is feeling pressured and pressure always backfire.
- Choose a restaurant where children can be exposed to foods, but not have to eat them. Open kitchens, bar sitting can provide children an opportunity to watch chefs and cooks put together beautiful dishes. Interactive type of restaurants: Korean barbecue, Japanese Teppanyaki or this restaurant where kids can make their own pizza, somehow involve customers in choosing their food with their senses.
Remember going out to restaurant as a child
Do you remember going out to a restaurant as a kid? Did it feel special? I certainly had this chance and tried to recreate this atmosphere for my children. We took our youngest daughter out to the Melbourne Press Club for her 6th birthday. We sat at the counter and watched the pastry chef make dozens of deserts while we were having our lunch. Our little miss got a great deal of attention from the pastry chef and received a special treat that she remembers to this day. Perhaps that is where she gets her passion for deserts. Did I tell you she was my most challenging eater growing up?