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Eating out with kids

Kathie Auton - 14 March 2013

Girl eating ice-cream in a restaurantI like eating out with my kids. Well, mostly I do. The time when Alex surreptitiously puked on the table at Yo Sushi wasn’t a highlight. Nothing to do with their food I hasten to add, both my kids adore ‘The Moving Food Place’, it’s just that sushi doesn’t sit well on top of a stomach bug...

We don’t eat out all the time, because even cheap eating out is expensive, but we have classed it as something ‘important’ and something we are going to spend money on sometimes. There are several justifications, sorry – reasons for this, which leads me on to the question: Why do we eat out with the kids?

Lots of different reasons for lots of different families I’m sure, but our list goes something like this: It’s family time in a setting where nobody feels the need to unpack the dishwasher or put a wash on. It’s a way of sharing that very human quality of sociability around eating. It also teaches manners (hopefully), like waiting, being polite, not yelling, conducting oneself in a civilised manner. It’s an opportunity to experience a range of styles and cuisines without necessarily having to master them as a home-cook.

Convenience too, a quick cafe lunch with my daughter is sometimes no more than an easy option. And there’s also the blatant self-interest too. I’ve eaten out with my kids since they were really tiny, with pretty high behaviour expectations too, because I have visions of lengthy family meals and this is something I really want to do at all stages of life with my family, without too much faffing, moaning, moping or fiddling with hand-help electronic devices – I figure the earlier you start setting these precedents the more chance you have of them becoming engrained and accepted.

What do the kids get out of it? Well, all of the above, plus the fact that it’s a treat. A fact never to be overlooked and to be ever-emphasised. When they ask to eat out we don’t always say yes, we can’t afford to always say yes. Not this month, we say, but maybe in a few weeks, as a family treat.

The treat factor brings me on to two other considerations in the eating-out-with-kids game. The 'what do you expect' question and the 'where do you go' question. And these are important because, like so many other post-children things, the game changes. Pre-kids eating out was a very different thing, it involved nice dresses, Time Out Guides, nice wines and taxi rides... Post-kids things look a bit different.

Starters for a start. Often my very favourite bits of a meal, starters are not always a great plan with kids. Unless you’ve done starters regularly at home (and I do wish I had) very few kids will get the concept and restrain themselves from out and out gorging, before getting bored before the mains are even on the horizon.

The venue too, and this forms part of the where do you go question, is a factor. I thought I knew what Pizza Hut was before I had kids. I had pigeon-holed it as a pretty average pizza chain that I’d never really bother with. But with kids it’s something different, it’s an instant access, thrilling salad bar, wipe clean, colouring-in, prelude to The Ice Cream Factory – a concept so deliciously exciting and magical to a five year old that I get giddy on his behalf. And the waiters and waitresses seem happy to play along with my line about only beautifully behaved children being allowed to use the Ice Cream Factory.

It’s all a matter of expectations you see. What do you expect from a meal out with the kids, especially ones that claim to be for children? Expectations vary, of course, with purpose, but there are some basics. I’d like my kids to be welcome, not seen to be an inconvenience, have options on the menu – not necessarily a kids menu, maybe just half sized and priced portions.

There seems to be a groundswell of expectation towards ‘healthier options’ too. Not surprisingly really given the recent press coverage on obesity. Healthy is an interesting one. You don’t go to a pizza or burger joint to get a healthy meal do you? It’s a treat right? A once in a while thing. But quality is something you could and should expect and in some ways this is a more useful concept.

I can’t claim my local fish and chip shop to be a purveyor of healthy meals, but it does offer quality. They do a brilliant kids box with freshly cooked Hake strips, mushy peas and juice. In contrast, I’ve seen some deeply depressing ‘healthy’ kids lunchboxes on offer in cafes. They think they’re healthy because they’ve got a miserable bag of wizened grapes in them, alongside a limp, marg-plastered, plastic bread sandwich. This is not quality and is only healthy in the very, very loosest sense of the word.

Now this could easily turn into a rant on my behalf, but I’ll try to contain myself. The boxed lunch things are irritating in their laziness on behalf of the vendor, but I can’t deny that they appeal to kids and when my fish and chip shop uses a fun box it doesn’t irritate me because what’s inside is good quality.

So, there are some initial thoughts. It’s a topic about which I – like lots of parents out there – am brimming with opinions about. This is why the Soil Association's new initiative Out to Lunch will be so interesting to keep an eye on and maybe you could consider getting involved with too.

Kathie has two young children and is taking a break from teaching to be a full-time mum. She is passionate about cooking and growing good food and takes any opportunity to get her kids involved in the kitchen.

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Adam Davies
19 March 2013 11:41

I think it is important to eat out with your kids, it builds social skills. It is quality family time that brings you all together and lets you talk outside of the home.

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