With some careful preparation and some sensible strategies, it is possible to take our children out for a meal, and for it to be a pleasurable experience.
Why Take Children Out for Meals
When children are taken out to a restaurant or cafe, they are likely to be introduced to new smells, tastes, textures, sights and sounds. This is very stimulating for them and can be enjoyable for the parents when they see that their children are having fun, as well as learning new things. Mums, Dads and Carers sometimes need a break from cooking or need to leave their home for a particular reason. It is sensible to get your child used to being out and eating out at a young age. We can start off with eating a snack at a cafe and increasing the amount of time spent in an eating place.
Before going out for a Meal
We need to be aware of the fact that young children have short attention spans, but they gradually increase over the years. A 2 year old can only sit for about 6 mins without squirming, whereas a 6 year old can normally sit for about 20 mins (3-5 minutes per year of age). Youngsters need therefore, to be taken outside or to another area after a short time to move around.
To prepare for a snack in a cafe, we can take some simple, small, quiet activities with us. These will help to keep our children occupied when they start to become restless. For example, crayons or pencils with a small notebook, figurines, books, activity books, puzzles, cards, soft or squeezy toys.
Eating regularly at a dinner table with the whole family is a worthwhile habit to organise. This time is valuable for communicating face to face, for building a family bond, for discussing family issues, for encouraging good behaviour and for socializing our children. It is important to teach table manners at home so that they will know how to behave when out. Eg eating with mouth closed, listening when others are speaking, one person speaking at a time, sitting properly, using cutlery for sloppy foods, refraining from burping and being noisy.
We can tell our children specifically what we expect of them in age-appropriate language. We can also let them know that we would like to take them out to dine on a regular basis, and that this will happen if they are well behaved. We can tell our older children that we would appreciate their help at the cafe, restaurant or other. The older children can help the younger ones by passing food, talking with them, offering activities and feeding infants.
It is preferable, but not essential, to choose a child-friendly cafe or restaurant that provides high chairs, children’s healthy snacks, children’s activities and or equipment.
The timing of the experience is important so that the children are less tired and restless.
We can have some healthy snacks, such as dried fruit, packed in case the child/ren don’t wish to eat anything that is offered.
Only order small amounts of food that your children are likely to eat and it’s wise not to make a fuss if your child doesn’t like it or want to eat it.
During the Meal
The most important consideration when out with our children is to set a positive example.
We will be pleasantly rewarded by our children if we can notice any positive behaviour, particularly effort, progress, co-operation and strengths and comment sincerely and specifically. We can focus on good manners such as sitting with legs under the table, waiting patiently, speaking quietly, helping younger children and independence.
Including each child in the conversation, at age appropriate levels will enhance the experience and foster co-operation. We can draw children out by asking simple questions and reflecting meaning and feelings.
If your child is very young, it can be easier to allow your child to sample from your or your partner’s plate, as they tend to want to eat what you are eating.
Empowering our children is something which is often overlooked. We can ask our children when and where they would like to go out, give them limited choices about what they can eat or drink. We can ask their opinions on the topic of conversation, ask them where they would like to sit and get them to order their own meals.
Giving attention and affection to each child needs to be liberal, whether at home or away from home. Children need to know in their hearts that they are loved and wanted.
Games can be a great way of keeping children occupied and still. Modified eye spy, 20 questions, memory games, and so on will help to occupy restless youngsters too.
Children need to be properly supervised at all times including when they need to visit the rest rooms. We need to be aware of hot foods, glasses and sharp utensils such as knives. Children need to know that it is totally unacceptable to run around in a restaurant.
If your child is misbehaving at the table, walk over to him or her, get down to his or her level and speak calmly to him or her. If he is younger than three, distraction usually works well. For the over threes, asking them calmly to do a related acceptable thing works brilliantly. For example, if your child is tapping his hand or foot, ask him nicely to place his hands on his legs in one spot. A child who is eating quickly can be asked to chew his food more slowly. If your child co-operates, try to encourage the appropriate behaviour. If he or she doesn’t, he or she can be deliberately ignored and another child, object or situation focused on. If the behaviour is too intrusive, the child can be taken aside and given a warning, that he or she will miss out on such and such if this continues. The consequence needs to be respectful, reasonable and preferably related to the misdeed. If the atmosphere is going downhill, you can tell the family that you will be leaving in so many minutes if things don’t improve. You then need to follow through if the situation continues to be problematic.
My general advice for congenial mealtimes (at home) is to:
– place a bowl or plate of healthy food and some water on the table
– sit down with the children and serve some for yourself
– show genuine enjoyment when eating and ask if anyone would like some food
– give or allow children to serve themselves a small portion (if old enough) when they are seated properly at the table
– have a conversation about anything other than the reason for eating good food (of course good nutrition needs to be discussed occasionally)
– praise children for sitting nicely, eating nicely, waiting patiently etc
– say nothing about the amount they are eating
– if they don’t wish to eat anything offered say nothing and keep sitting down and eating yourself
– give attention to the children that are sitting down properly
– if they leave the table ask them to please sit down at the table and join the family
– if they don’t do so, ignore them (whilst keeping an eye on them for safety )
– after several courses on plates or in bowls, offer plain bread or fruit if little has been eaten
– don’t have too many choices and keep to healthy foods
– if giving treats, give at the end of meals or between meals and ensure that they are small
– keep junk foods out of reach in the kitchen cupboards or fridge
– If children don’t eat at a particular meal, they might not be hungry and will probably eat more at the next meal.
– When they are ill or upset they may lose their appetite temporarily
– children will naturally eat the amount of food that they need and the type of food that they require when offered healthy choices
– avoid power struggles at all costs
– if children play with utensils or food excessively take it away after a warning
– variety is the spice of life
– everybody has different food preferences