It was hard when I had to tell my kids that I thought Chipotle was “just ok.” My daughter dropped her fork. My son did a spit take. She was genuinely shocked. He was playing it up for effect. I appreciated both responses. But my wife and I recently came to a decision that it was time our kids no longer dictated where we eat.
You might think this is a recipe for a less-pleasant dining experience. But it has actually led to our children discovering new foods they like and it has us feeling better about spending money for an experience that varies from the typical meals we cook at home.
Here’s how you, too, can gently move away from letting the youngest common denominator decide the restaurant.
Seek out kid-friendly restaurants
Kid-friendly doesn’t just mean kids menu (here’s how you can avoid the kids menu trap). Local restaurants—often with chefs that have children of their own—can be great for families. There’s a vegetarian restaurant by us with a dedicated kids’ play area and sparkling mocktails (cocktails without alcohol) that our kids love.
Crowdsource this one. Ask your friends for the spots where servers have been welcoming to kids or the menu has more choices than you might expect.
Go ahead, talk about money
We give our kids a weekly allowance for their chores. And we let them spend or save their money without comment, unless they ask for our opinion. It’s their money. But when we go out to dinner, we’re spending our money. So, we talked about that fact.
It’s a fine line to walk. You don’t want to make your kids worry about the family finances. But it’s also ok for them to understand that dining out is a treat. Once we discussed the idea that we were spending money, it led to other conversations about how else we spend our paychecks. We talked about our house and car payments and holidays. It also made me feel better that our kids understand the cost of going out to eat.
Keep it fast-casual to start
Your instinct as a parent when instituting a new paradigm is to go all in. It’s an entirely human response when you’re ready for a change. It’s also how you’ll doom yourself to battles at the dinner table. If you end up at fast food spots and burger joints with regularity, the first step to moving away from the drive-thru is to opt for a new option in the fast-casual universe. The Chipotle model of counter service or a topping bar has been extended to pizza, chicken fingers and salads.
If you’ve got young kids, this is an easy way to start sitting around a table at a restaurant and still get in and out fairly quickly without worrying about disrupting the rest of the dining room. And here, everyone still has lots of choices. At a BiBibop—a fast-casual spot with Korean-influenced bowls—in our neighbourhood, my son, who is the pickier of my two children, can get a bowl with meat and rice, while my daughter can load up a plate with scrambled eggs and pickled vegetables.
Give everyone a chance to steer the ship
The challenge of picking a restaurant is the same as picking a movie that will appeal to all the members of your family. You’re different people with different tastes.
So, one way to solve the dilemma is to give everybody a turn as the decider. Set the ground rules and the rotation. Give your kids the first pick. And then, when it is your turn, feel free to try to expand their horizons.
Lean in to what they like
I know what you’re thinking: The kids will love it when they pick the burger joint with ice cream, but they’ll just complain when it’s my turn. Here’s where a little advance work can make all the difference. Look for variations on old favourites.
Chicken katsu—available at lots of Japanese restaurants—is a cousin to chicken fingers. That picky guy? The meat and rice kid? He prefers chicken katsu to chicken fingers now. It was what he wanted to eat on his birthday. Our adventurous kid? She loves avocado rolls.
And my wife and I? We get a sushi date once in a while.