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.
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.
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?