Food for thought: Why we don’t eat out with our kids

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Natalie Hollingshead discusses the adventures of eating out with young children.

Natalie Hollingshead discusses the adventures of eating out with young children.

because-I-said-so-REDFor the past seven years, I’ve worked from home as a freelance writer and editor. I have three kids, so I do most of my work in my home office (read: desk in our spare room) in my yoga pants when I should probably be in bed. Occasionally, I get assignments that require me to leave my house — not in said yoga pants —and do things like tour luxury hotels and eat at $60-a-plate restaurants.

Only a few days ago, I sat in a fancy steakhouse waiting for my entree. I was dining alone because my husband had another commitment — and, let’s be honest, because the per diem only covers my meal. The server kindly sat me at an inconspicuous table in the back, and I was alone for only a few minutes until a family of five was seated next to me.

What I witnessed for the next forty minutes shocked me. No, it wasn’t food fights. No, it wasn’t whining over the absence of a kid’s menu. No, it wasn’t hissed pleas from their parents to “keep it down.” What shocked me was that none of those things happened.

The kids addressed the server politely and waited in turn to place their order. They had a pleasant conversation in hushed tones while waiting for their food to arrive. When the server delivered an amuse-bouche  (a single serving hors d’oeuvre) made with seared ahi tuna, the kids ate it and liked it. Heck, I even heard the oldest child — a boy who was probably 12 years old — order a chopped salad with peas and olives as a side to his sirloin steak.

I don’t know what it’s like when you take your kids to a restaurant, but my experiences thus far in my parenting career have been nothing like what I witnessed in the restaurant that day. No, it’s not all out anarchy. But I’d be a bold-faced liar if I described it as “pleasant” or “relaxing.”

One particularly bad experience happened earlier last summer when we let our kids convince us to take them to sit-down chain restaurant. The older two had received vouchers for free kid’s meals from the local library’s summer reading program, and we relented, thinking it would be a fun family outing. Cue the maniacal laughter.

Even though we gave them instructions to the contrary, the kids shout-talked the entire time. It took forever for our six-year old son to decide which of the four kids meal options he wanted — until the meal was placed in front of him, at which point he decided that it was definitely not what he wanted. Our four year-old daughter couldn’t stop playing with the saltshaker. Both flagged the waiter down multiple times with innate requests, despite us begging them to stop. And then they spilled their drinks.

Since that fateful night, my husband and I have put a lot of time into teaching our kids about the right way to behave during dinner. We had a series of weekly family activities devoted to Mommy’s School of Manners, where I drilled the kids about everything from the proper use of a napkin to the importance of not insulting the food (a real problem at our house). At the end of the class, we had a celebratory dinner where we tested their skills and they graduated from the school. Of course, they still need little reminders about the right way to behave, but generally when we tell them, “Manners, please,” they actually know what we’re talking about.

Although their table manners are much better, it’s still so much work to take them out to eat. And frankly, if I’m going to spend the money for a restaurant meal, I’d like to actually enjoy it. Even when we are running low on groceries, I’d rather scrounge through my pantry and eat Top Ramen for dinner than pay money to be frustrated.

For now, we eat at home. Someday, our kids will be old enough that when we go out to eat  it will actually be a pleasant experience. But it probably won’t ever be at a five-star restaurant — and I’m totally OK with that. I don’t really care for chopped salads with peas and olives, anyway.

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Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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