No-Pressure Restaurant Meals

What advice do you have for going out to dinner with my selective eater when there is nothing safe on the menu for him to eat? We usually feed him before we arrive or bring something for him from home if the restaurant doesn’t serve bread or fries. I’ve heard this may not be such a good habit but I don’t know what else to do.

Eating away from home with a selective eating child can be very stressful for the whole family. There are so many opportunities for pressure to invade the meal that are beyond the parents’ control. The priority should be on providing the child with a positive social eating experience, with most of the focus on being well behaved and learning to be comfortable around unfamiliar food.

In the division of responsibility, the parents responsibility is what, where and when. The most effective way to protect your child from sources of pressure is to stick to your feeding responsibilities, and trust that your child will stick to his (how much to eat). Eating away from home, however, makes division of responsibility feeding considerably more challenging.

What about the “what”?

The what, in a restaurant setting, is included on the menu. The parent has no control over what food the restaurant serves. Still, it is possible that a competent eating child, even one with a limited variety of accepted foods could select something from the menu (a side or a dessert) and eat it with the family and friends in attendance while also being well behaved throughout the meal.

Menu cover of Yung Kee Restaurant, Central, Ho...

Menu cover of Yung Kee Restaurant, Central, Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t expect a child who has not achieved this level of eating competence to be able to find something similar to his familiar foods to eat. One of the building blocks to building trust with eating is to keep meals pressure-free by pairing unfamiliar food with food the child usually eats. If familiar food is not on the menu, this critical part of the mealtime structure is now missing.

What about the “when”

Parents can compensate for the lack of control with what’s on the menu with when the child eats, either a light snack before arriving at the restaurant, when the server delivers the food, or after the family returns home. Deciding when your child will eat depends on which option will help him to be well behaved during the meal. Putting a child in a challenging eating situation before they are ready is always risky.

Parents might choose to feed their child a light snack before arriving at the restaurant so he’s not too hungry during the meal. This strategy, however, denies the child an opportunity to learn how to handle a menu full of unfamiliar food. It’s also impossible to predict how hungry a child is or will be. Either the child will be hungry, but unable to find something to eat, or the parents will have a not hungry and bored child to entertain while everyone else is trying to enjoy their meal.

bored child

Another idea could be a group effort to make a buffet for everybody at the table that includes familiar food brought from home, along with the meals (or parts of) that others have ordered. The child still has the option to choose or decline from what is offered, and plenty of familiar food for him to fill up on and to share. The success of this strategy will depend on how comfortable the child is around unfamiliar food and, of course, the cooperation of others in attendance.

When a pre-meal snack or a makeshift buffet is not feasible, as is often the case early in the transition to feeding without pressure, aim for a pleasant experience:

“Often tortilla chips, or tortillas, or even ice-cream may be an option. Include desserts in the options perhaps, or consider bringing along a safe food and trying to be very matter-of-fact about it. Subtly taking out a baggie of crackers and allowing him to eat them without comment while the others eat seems reasonable. Expect comments, prepare supportive adults in advance, fend off nosy friends and waitstaff with, “We’re doing fine here, thanks!” Also plan on serving a snack if possible an hour or two after you get home if your child didn’t get his fill.” ~ Dr. Katja Rowell, author of Love Me, Feed Me

Many restaurants have their menus posted online. Use this knowledge to prepare for what to expect ahead of time. Most wait staff will overlook a child eating a packed-from-home snack while several adults are adding items to the bill (and remember to tip well). Remind your child that he doesn’t have to eat anything he isn’t comfortable with, or at all if he isn’t hungry. The goal is to keep the experience positive so your child can learn that he is always trusted with eating.

What about the “where”?

The parent probably has the most control over where to eat to protect their child from pressure.

Knowing ahead of time that a particular restaurant will not have familiar food options for the child, the parent can insist on a more family friendly establishment. Your choice doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to a place with a drive-thru window. Plentiful are the restaurants that will keep a bottomless basket of bread on the table, or have a side of fries as a menu option.

“When feeding struggles have gone on for a long time, the child will need to be reassured and learn to trust that he won’t be strong-armed to eat in one setting and then another. Before going out to eat with others, it would be best for the family to eat just by themselves. Also keep in mind that the bottom line is not EATING. It is being comfortable and behaving nicely in the meal setting.” -Ellyn Satter, RD, Family Therapist, and creator of the Division of Responsibility

Meals in unfamiliar environments with another family is a huge expectation for a child who is still learning to be trusted with eating. It’s also an option to consider hiring a babysitter and taking this opportunity to enjoy an adult evening out, or if the other party is not flexible with where to eat, to decline the invitation.


Some things to remember for successful eating away from home: consider the child’s level of eating competence, how much the child trusts that his responsibility with feeding will be respected, and the parents’ ability to protect their child from outside sources of pressure. It takes time to build trust with eating. Being able to relax and enjoy a family meal away from home is a sign of great progress, a milestone of success that follows many positive eating experiences that first happen at home, in the comfort of the familiar.

Share your successful restaurant eating experience. What has worked for your family?


5 responses to “No-Pressure Restaurant Meals

  1. Great post again! I also like booths and buffets when possible with small kids, and bring toys and stuff to keep kids busy while you wait. I also hated when restaurants would bring the kids’ food out first, then you have a kids who is done eating, bored and whiny while you are waiting for your food and trying to enjoy your own meal. I got in the habit of just asking them to bring all the meals at one time.
    Ruby Tuesday or other buffet where you can get a plate or two of “appetizers” with lots of different choices and with a few options for dipping can keep kids busy and expose them to lots of new foods. Also aren’t wasting a ton if you just put a little bit of each food out. I’d also love to hear if your readers ever found that kids tried MORE and new things at a restaurant. I hear that from my clients often as well. The child who won’t try anything new at home feels more relaxed and less pressured away from home, and tries something off a parent’s plate (say pasta with pesto sauce!)… Then the challenge is not to rush to the store and buy 4 kinds of the new food (pesto for example) hoping the child will now eat it regularly at home 🙂

  2. Urg. Eating out. We have tried choosing something from the menu he will eat at home. We have tried taking along food from home. Either way he won’t eat. He just throws it, smears it and kicks off until we leave feeling utterly dejected and wondering why we bothered. Sorry I couldn’t provide any advice. Will be watching with interest to see what others say. Thanks for another great post x

    • Clare,

      Eating in a restaurant is a VERY challenging environment for a food neophobic child (or adult for that matter). Take lots of time and practice being successful with eating at home first where things are less noisy, less distracting… and the food and company are very familiar.
      One step at a time.

  3. I think you are right on with making mealtime a pleasant time as the first priority. Once a child feels he can relax and let down his guard while others are eating you have a much better chance of spending the meal talking about other subjects. And when you have a laid-back picky eater who isn’t constantly on guard that someone will try to change him, he will stop being defensive about new foods on the table, whether he eats them or not. Thanks for this information.

  4. Another excellent post. I would only add for those with children on the Autism Spectrum…using a social story on how to deal with the smells, differences within the restaurant environment and bothersome foods being within close proximity to the child etc… A social story is a nice way to “prepare” a child on the spectrum with a script-like {but in pictures w/words paired} plan to follow so they can deal with difficult situations. Even children as young as two, can greatly benefit from this strategy. Thank you as always for providing great information.

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