Pre-children, you and your partner may have enjoyed eating out in various restaurants, trying out different foods and experiences. I’m sure that you viewed these outings as fun and social experiences – we tend to be brought together with our friends and family by food and the occasion of it. Post-children it is very common that eating out in different restaurants (other than those which have the ‘child friendly’ signs) are a thing of the past and where you think you will go once the children are ‘much older’!!
Eating out is certainly something that is more common for our generation than it was for our parents; there weren’t as many restaurants available and they were often very prohibitive on price. Nowadays there are a plethora of eating establishments offering a huge variety of foods, tastes and textures as well as different environments, yet, in many cases, we are reluctant to take our children to them in case they disturb the other customers, make a mess or generally won’t sit still! The question you need to ask yourself is when and how your child/ren will learn how to sit at the table, make choices off a menu and learn to order meals, if they are not exposed to these experiences until they are much older. You also need to consider, that if your children are only experiencing restaurants where they are able to run off and play in the soft play area, or in fast food restaurants with limited waiting time or places where making a mess is not seen as too much of a problem, this is what they will grow up assuming is the norm.
I’m not saying that you should attempt to take your child to dinner with you and expect them to sit through a 3-course meal – start small and work up! It might be that you will just have a main course in the restaurant of your choosing and that is as much as you do for the first couple of months of eating out with your children. By doing this it means that they are sitting for a reasonable time and not getting bored; you want to make their experience of eating out something that is enjoyable and not something that feels like a lifetime to them! Don’t worry, I’m not saying you need to sacrifice dessert (if that’s your thing), just ask if you can take one away with you! 😉
Be prepared to have things to entertain your children during the mealtime, but avoid electronic devices as this will mean that they will get engrossed in whatever they are doing on the device and therefore won’t be ‘in the moment’ learning the concept of time (it is extremely important that adults role model this behaviour by not having their devices at the table either!). By having devices to entertain them they are also are losing out on learning valuable life skills like making conversation with the other people at the table and their own entertainment. Don’t bring out a bag full of activities for them straight away as this will become expected and might not always be possible.
So, what can they do when sitting at the table? Spend time looking at the menu with them and explaining the different things that are on there. Involve them in making choices such as what Mummy or Daddy should have or what they should try. You can even do this with babies; starting them early with conversation and involvement means that they too will learn how to manage and approach the eating out experience. Have a couple of table top toys and activities in reserve, which your children don’t normally have, so that there is an element of interest for them – avoid anything too messy! ;-). For older children, involving the whole family in a simple game of cards can be great fun and get everyone talking and involved.
Children need to be comfortable when eating, so for babies and toddlers you might want to look at taking a portable highchair with you so that you know they will be comfortable and that you definitely have a safe place for them to sit. There is nothing worse than getting to a restaurant and finding out that they don’t have any highchairs left!
Don’t feel that you only need to be restricted to restaurants with ‘children’s menus’ either as these are often restrictive and not hugely adventurous. Look at taking food with you for your baby and also think about what finger foods you might be able to offer them at the same time so that they are able to experience flavours that are on offer at the restaurant you have visited. As they get older and at the toddler stage, perhaps ask for a side plate that you can put some of what you order onto it so that they are trying the same dish as you. This might mean that you will need to order a couple of additional side dishes so that you are all having enough to eat, but if you are in a Thai restaurant, you don’t want your child having fish fingers and chips, you want them to have the opportunity to try the flavours and textures of Thai food. However, always be mindful of the food that you are ordering and check with the waiting staff regarding seasoning as this needs to be reduced if your child is eating it. As your child gets older (and they have had these experiences of eating out) you will soon find that they will want to try new things and will have the confidence to look at the menu themselves to see what they might like!
Food needs to be seen in a positive light by children and being given the opportunity to try new foods, in safe and social situations is vitally important. We want our children to think of eating different textures and flavours as an adventure and taking them to different restaurants to experience the food and different environments all helps them to achieve this.
Claire Burgess is a Family Consultant at Bespoke Family.