SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight"By Stepfanie Romine, co-author of "The
We dine out more than ever before. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that we eat 29% of our meals away from home. And the National Restaurant Association says that these meals take up about half of our food budgets.
Dining out with children need not be a stressful situation. Plan ahead and be creative.
Here are 10 tips to help make your meal out a night to remember!
Start at the bottom of the food chain. Consider starting with an outing to a fast food restaurant, a pizzeria, or a short-order diner, then work your way up to a fast-casual chain or a favorite family-run restaurant.
Choose carefully. While Dad has his heart set on the fancy new fusion bistro and Mom prefers Indian food, the kids will feel more comfortable at a diner or a fast-casual joint. Find someplace casual, with an environment that's loud enough to handle the noise of a few kids. Make sure they have a kids menu or a menu that appeals to kids and adults. Chains or homestyle buffets tend to cater to families, but you can probably also find a few local eateries that are kid-friendly, too. Ask friends or family members for suggestions.
Bring edible reinforcements. A few emergency snacks can save the day if service is slow or the restaurant's chicken nuggets aren't to your 3-year-old's liking. (Think crackers, raisins and cereal--anything that's portable and not very messy.) Kids are creatures of habit. Consider it flattering that your son won't eat his mashed potatoes because they're not like yours.
Make a reservation. Restaurants are likely to have long waits on the weekends and on special occasions. Limit your wait by making a reservation ahead of time. If that's not possible, make sure you have an emergency snack or a couple of quiet toys to ward off hunger or boredom. Instead of waiting in a crowded entryway (where one cranky kid can cause a chain reaction), leave one grown-up to wait inside while the other takes the kids to the car or for a walk outside.
Entertain yourselves. A few quiet and discreet diversions can help youngsters get through a meal. Go old school with your games to reinforce that sense of family togetherness. Use dice to teach math skills, play hangman or tic-tac-toe on the restaurant's paper tablecloths (or in a notepad) or bring a coloring or activity book.
Set the ground rules ahead of time. Tell the kids that going to a restaurant is a special occasion that requires they be on their best behavior, just like church or a trip to Grandma's house. Even if you're just going to the corner pizzeria, make sure the kids know that it's a time to keep elbows off the table, use indoor voices and be nice to siblings.
Order kid-friendly food. Unless your child likes trying new food or asks to try something new, stick with the old favorites. When kids like what they eat, they're more likely to clean their plates. Experiment with new foods at home.
Set a good example. Order something healthy to show kids that eating at a restaurant isn't an excuse to just eat "junk food." If your child sees you order a burger and fries after you made him get the fruit cup and grilled cheese, they likely won't be happy.
Help little ones order, but let them decide what they want to eat. Big kids like being able to choose for themselves. Encourage them to tell the server what they want, say thank you when the food arrives, and read the menu if they can. It's a great way for them to practice manners and interaction with adults.
Don't dawdle. Though grown-ups enjoy leisurely multi-course meals, kids' attention spans often don't last past the salad course. Order a kid-friendly appetizer for the table to share, ask for a bread basket, or skip the first course and head straight to the entrees.
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SparkRecipes.com editor Stepfanie Romine is a certified yoga teacher and co-author of "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight." A vegetarian and runner, she has lived and cooked on three continents.