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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Family meals in restaurants

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Seventy percent of families eat out at least once a week. If you can afford it, eating out is a way of having a pleasant and relaxed family time and getting that important family meal. Keep in mind that the first priority is having a meal. The second is the nutritional quality of the meal – but you can have both. If you eat out rarely, you can afford to throw nutritional considerations to the winds and let your child order what he wants and what you can afford. If you eat out a lot, it’s worth setting up some simple guidelines to help him balance things out.

Help your child plan his meal

You have my blessings for applying these guidelines in fast food places as well as regular restaurants.

When your child chooses what he wants to eat in a restaurant, he takes over your job of meal planning (as in the division of responsibility in feeding). As a result, he needs guidelines for choosing what to eat. Not only that, but when he gets older he will be eating in restaurants on his own. If he learns these guidelines when he is little, he is likely to use them when he gets older.

  • Try for three different food groups  Getting three different food groups happens automatically anyway. A hamburger and a bun with French fries has three foods groups, as does pizza (crust, cheese, and topping). A salad, bread, and milk works, as does a taco (tortilla, meat, and vegetables).
  • Include fried food if you enjoy it  Since many people don’t fry at home, you may be eating out to get it. Food that is fried is still food. Following the three-food-group guideline will balance things out.
  • Limit sweets to one per meal  If your child has a milkshake or soda for his beverage, that counts as his sweet. However, if he chooses milk or water, he can still have dessert.
  • Keep dessert portions child-size, just as you would at home That might mean splitting a dessert with someone else at the table, or ordering a sundae rather than a banana split.
  • Don’t feel obligated to order from children’s menus  Menus for kids are typically limited to high-fat, easy-to-eat foods. For more variety, consider the appetizers or a la carte menu. Split meals, or plan to take some home from an adult portion.
  • Lay out cost limits ahead of time, then help your older child cope Order bread and let him fill up on that if he can’t eat what he ordered. Even grownups have trouble knowing ahead of time if a food will taste good to them. 
  • Expect and enforce positive mealtime behavior  You owe it to the other diners. Your children are fun,  cute, and charming, but to others, they may represent commotion and noise. 
  • Do problem-solving about waste  Kids waste even more food than usual in restaurants. Don’t insist your child eat it if he ordered it. Instead, ask him about it: “I like it when you experiment with new foods, but you ordered this food and didn’t eat it. What do you think we should do about it next time?” One of his solutions may be to order something familiar, then take a taste of what you order.

Fast food restaurants are okay for family meals

You have my blessings for applying these guidelines in fast food places as well as regular restaurants. I do not agree with the food cops who wax hysterical about eating out in general and fast-food restaurants in particular. You and your child get most of your emotional and nutritional benefit from sharing a family meal. There is a world of difference between sitting around a table enjoying your fast-food meal together compared with whipping through the drive-through and throwing a paper bag into the back seat.

Tips for grandparents who pay the restaurant bill

Decide how much you are willing to spend on your grandchild’s meal. Don’t worry about being a skinflint. Assume that he won’t eat it. Or maybe he will, but if you spend too much he won’t eat enough to make you feel you got your money’s worth. If he is old enough, tell him how much he can spend and help him figure out what he can order for that amount of money. Let him include dessert if he wants it. Ignore food waste. Do not feel obligated to get him something different if he doesn’t eat what he ordered.

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