42 Restaurant Meals: How We Survived Our Family Vacation

Learning to eat is one of the great challenges for a child -- but it can also be one of parenting's central joys. Learning to eat out should be no different.
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I wasn't sure we would make it: a two-week road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego and back. For me, this was a welcome break from meal planning, marketing, cooking, and cleaning up. But we have a nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, and while they're generally good eaters and well-behaved, 42 meals is a lot of eating out. In the weeks preceding the trip my husband and I worried: how would we get them ready every night? Would they have the energy to sit still? (Ironic, I know, but true.) Would they fight at the dinner table? Whine about choices? These things can be challenges at home. But when the time came, we found to our very great relief that our kids rose to the occasion. After, we realized that we've been training them for this kind of trip for years. Our precepts for eating out with kids have always included:

  • Dine when they will be hungry, but not too hungry. This may seem obvious, but you want your kids to be alert, engaged, and at their best. They should be ready to eat, not ready for bed. If they're too hungry, they whine or fill up on bread and crackers. Either one will ruin your dinner. I can live with an earlier dinner time for a few years.
  • Wear nice(r) clothes. My husband believes there is a direct relationship between how well kids are dressed and how well they behave. Nice clothes = something special = nice manners. This is old-fashioned but true.
  • Don't let them fill up on bread or Shirley Temples. We like to have a first course, so we've had to be ingenious about pacing our children. Sometimes we order the kids something very, very small to split. Sometimes they'll have a piece of bread. Or a special drink. But we never let them fill up. We want them to learn how to pace themselves and eat in courses. Our job is to help them.
  • Talk to your kids about things that matter to them but don't pander. Make time for family conversation. Talk about their day, let them color or draw a little, play tic tac toe with them, but also take time to talk to your adult companions. Balance adult/kid interaction. It's your night out, too.
  • Encourage new foods, but don't force them. Let your kids order what they want to eat. A restaurant is not always the best place to insist on new food. By the end of our trip, we absolutely let them order off the kids menu. One more round of chicken tenders was a fine price to pay for a pleasant meal.
  • Manners. These are inviolable: Stay in your chair. Use utensils. Make appropriate conversation. (I.e. All those words associated with bodily functions and bathrooms? Banned).
  • Let yourself and them have something special. Enjoy an appetizer or a glass of wine if the timing is right. Linger over dessert sometimes. Kids learn how to behave from you. If you're enjoying yourself and the food, eventually they'll learn restaurants can be fun.
  • Absolutely no electronic devices at the table. Ever. We think using electronics at the table is just plain rude. Allowing this behavior assumes children are impatient, incapable of making conversation, not worthy of being engaged by their companions. It teaches them to ignore and disengage from the people around them.
Instead, let them bring (or bring for them) something discreet and quiet to engage them: a coloring page, a small sketchbook, a few crayons. Play tic tac toe, or a word game, or whatever your kids like. The key to engaging kids in a restaurant is a quiet activity or conversation that will distract them during the wait but not sever them from the table's life and conversation.

This list helped us through many meals -- at casual and formal restaurants alike. As Caroline Grant and I write regularly on our blog, learning to eatis one of the great challenges for a child -- but it can also be one of parenting's central joys. Learning to eat out should be no different.

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