When I was about 12, my dad and I took a trip and ate at a restaurant in the motel, a rare treat. I perused the menu and was quickly drawn to the seafood. The descriptions of the entrees all sounded so delicious, I could hardly decide. Catfish was familiar and pan-fried, so I played it safe, or so I thought. When my meal came, the fish stared up at me; I had no idea he would still be sporting his head and tail. Try as I might to pick around the bones, the fish glared at me in disgust. Dad had also ordered something familiar with greater success, and being the best father ever, he traded me meals. I know that families dine out far more often than my family did when I was a child, but experience has taught me that dining out as a family still presents many challenges.
I’m sure most of you choose restaurants like we did; known menu, family friendly, choices you know the kids will eat. But sometimes, you just want to celebrate with something a little different or a little higher end, or maybe you want to go out for something you wouldn’t normally prepare at home. Kids can learn so much from dining out, but parents need to be prepared so that everyone can enjoy the adventure. I have listened to little ones screaming because there were no fries or the sandwich didn’t taste like Mommy’s. I have also been in some pretty sticky situations when my own girls were unhappy with the choices, or the food they had ordered.
It helps to prepare younger kids for the meal before you arrive at the restaurant. Explain the rules: sitting in your seat, using your manners, etc. It also helps to talk about the menu so they will have some idea of what they will choose before they arrive. I get so irritated when parents ask their pre-schooler to choose while the waitress is standing at the table and everyone is waiting. Remember, you don’t give them a wide variety of choices at home, so ask them to pick between two choices, at most, if you don’t decide with them in advance. Children who can read may become adventurous in their choices and that is where the real fun begins. When my brother-in-law was ten, I remember him ordering a “Deluxe Burger” with nothing on it; he thought deluxe meant large, not “with all the fixings.” We all laughed, but it was a better lesson to learn with family than it would have been on a first date!
On our first fine dining excursion with Audrey, my oldest daughter, she announced that she wanted to try lobster, which totally amused the owner of the only nice place to eat in our little town. We ordered surf and turf to split between the two of us, and they served the steak and half the potato on one plate, the lobster and remaining potato on the other. After her first bite she said, “I don’t understand why people make such a big deal over this stuff!” Needless to say, I had a lovely lobster dinner, while she polished off the rib-eye.
Once the girls were old enough to order for themselves, I would ask them before the waiter arrived at the table what they had chosen. When they can’t decide between two options, I still offer to get one of the two so that we can try both. I know I sound like a martyr, but truthfully, we are usually stuck on the same two options. At first, I offered to question the waiter about the ingredients in a dish, or the preparation method, for them. Neither of the girls eats onions, so it was important to know that the dish wouldn’t be oniony. After a while, they began to ask for themselves. Unfortunately, we weren’t always successful at selecting food that they considered palatable. Like my fish, sometimes you just assume it’s a safe choice. Thankfully, I married a man who will eat almost anything. Most of the time, we could simply trade plates and make it all better, but not every time.
My husband and I always order what looks good to us, not what we think the girls will eat if they don’t like what they have ordered. If one of them didn’t care for the food they were served, we looked for the easiest solutions first: could we trade part or all of our meal and keep everyone happy; or could we share what one of us ordered and have enough to satisfy two? If neither of these options worked, we sampled their food to see if we liked it, and asked for a take-home box. Then, we reordered for the dissatisfied customer without making a big fuss. Somebody would be having some delicious leftovers for lunch the next day. We also relaxed about food choices and combinations. If Audrey was offered two sides, she would usually choose two kinds of potatoes; Claire might choose soup and dessert. We could always make up for missing food groups at other times during the day, and they knew the difference between a special meal and everyday balance. Just as at home, they were encouraged to eat just enough to satisfy, and we could take home any leftovers.
I love to eat out with my kids now, because they are delightful company. All the efforts we made to take them and teach them about dining in public places paid off. Do you have favorite places to take your kids for food? What are your biggest challenges with dining out?