My husband’s birthday called for a special outing, and being food lovers, we chose a new restaurant that ranked a step above the usual places we eat. There would be no slides or play areas, no crayons or placemats for our kids to color. The food was said to be spectacular but pricey, and the setting offered an ambiance that was a bit more formal.
The challenge? Taking our four kids with us.
They ranged from ages 5–9, with one child who would eat anything on the table and another who was known for requesting specific food only to refuse it once it arrived. Throw in some food allergies and we couldn’t decide whether this was going to be a celebration or the worst family adventure we’d ever undertaken. Still, we decided to try.
Despite receiving some side-eye when we showed up during brunch with children in tow, the meal actually went well. Waiting for the meal, as always, was the biggest challenge for the young crew. Though one child took her jacket on and off at least five times and another wanted to sit in my lap for part of the meal, we all still managed to enjoy our food without driving other diners crazy. Eating out as a family was fun, if a bit more stressful than eating at home.
The benefits of eating together as a family are well-documented. Researchers at the University of Montreal found that children whose families eat together see long-term mental and physical health benefits—for example, the children in the study were not as aggressive and were in better physical shape. There’s also the added benefit of social interactions and language acquisition when dining at the table with parents.
Implementing family dinners at home may feel easy compared to taking the dinner experience out on the town, especially if fine dining is what you have in mind. We wanted our kids to be part of my husband’s birthday celebration, but we didn’t want to frequent our usual places. Plus, we want to raise kids who know how to go to a nice restaurant, use their manners and enjoy a meal. These skills will serve them throughout life, and the best way to learn them is through practice.
Do Your Homework
Since choosing an entrée can be a long process for a little one, access the restaurant’s menu online before arriving. This allows for the order to be put in quickly, shortening the time between sitting and eating. Less time to get bored means less time for whining, napkin tossing and inappropriate table conversations (read: potty talk).
Perusing the menu beforehand also allows kids to set their expectations for what food is available. Families with food allergies, like ours, can make sure their needs can be accommodated so they won’t take everyone to a place where there is no safe food for them to consume.
Wade in Slowly
There’s no need to choose a five-star restaurant that requires a child to know the difference between a salad fork and a fish fork. Parents should shy away from starting with a place that is so nice they fear bringing kids in the door—so much tension is stressful for everyone. Instead, start by going to a sit-down restaurant where kids learn to place their orders, use their manners and engage with family around the table. Then work up to nicer places as kids learn the expectations for fine dining behavior.
Practice at Home
Practice makes perfect, even for dining out with kids. A fellow local mom, Cheryl Hicks, tells me she used to make dinners at home a big deal to prepare kids for going out to restaurants. Her children dressed up for the meals, and she added candles and music to create ambiance. Her kids learned skills they then wanted to show off when eating at a restaurant, and this kept them from being bored or disengaged. “When it was time to spring the family on the real world, you could tell they were so proud of the things they had learned,” she says.
Frisco therapist Robi Heath agrees with the idea of practicing at home, and recommends your practice go beyond simple etiquette. “Another practice is bringing in the idea of mindful eating,” she says. “We live in a fast-paced culture … we often miss the opportunity to enjoy our food. Have a conversation about the texture of the food, taste, and smell. This allows our bodies to use all of our senses and creates a more robust eating experience.”
Practice at home also means setting rules for interactions at the table. “Limit electronics so you can maximize your connection time with your family,” Heath says. “Model for them how to utilize dinnertime as a time to connect and enjoy your family.”