Up close and personal: eating out with children

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 3:29pm

It's not something I like to admit, but in my years BC (Before Child) I was one of those people you find in restaurants or cafes who visibly bristle when young children are seated close by. I'm sure you know the type. In a way, I wish I could apologise for being "that guy".

I often think back to those years when I take my own child into a restaurant, particularly an upmarket one. I've not only repented of my anti-children-in-restaurant ways, but have come to believe it's very important to sit children alongside adults, even at the best tables in town.

I grew up in a household where mealtimes were a big deal. We erred on the side of formality - not so much because my parents were ceremonial folk, but because they saw meals as an important way to bring the family together. As immigrants in a strange land, struggling with the language and customs of their new home, our mealtimes were an opportunity to indulge familiar tastes and habits while speaking our native tongue. We always shared stories as we ate dinner together.

As a young child, I was served smaller portions than the grown-ups but was always given the same food. Of course, not every family approaches meals this way. Some do not eat together, often preferring to feed children at a different time, or even at a different table, to the grown-ups. And while very young children have special dietary needs, some parents choose to continue feeding their children different dishes to the grown-ups', even once the children are well into their teens.

At the time of my life when I was "that guy", I was shocked to see that my in-laws would, at large family gatherings, seat the children at a separate table and serve them a different menu. Something gave when my own daughter was born and the instinct to share my culture kicked in. From an early age, we sat our child down with us at meals and introduced the food we ate to her, both at home and on our travels.

Ordering food is a wonderful way to learn about life. It's a lesson in risk and adventure.

Pretty soon we noticed that she was rejecting that bastion of children's dining - the children's meal. I can't remember exactly how old she was, but it would have been around five or six, when she told me why she preferred to order from the adult menu. Although the children's menus always had things she enjoyed - pizza, burgers, pasta - the versions of those served up for the children were never as good as the ones the adults received. I've often caught myself wondering what we are doing by seating children at different tables to eat. Could we be doing them a disservice, robbing them of important experiences?

It was a friend of mine who first made me think about what the dinner table means in the socialisation of a young child. He would invite people he described as "successful and flamboyant" to family dinners as a way to test and inspire his offspring. The dinner table ought to be a place where we help our children travel towards adulthood.

Take the children's menu. Why do we pay restaurant prices for rubbish food that is often cooked from frozen? I've heard parents exclaim that at least ordering from the children's menu means that the children will "eat something". Do we really want to aim so low?

Ordering food is a wonderful way to learn about life. It's a lesson in risk and adventure. For those of us who live away from our home cultures, it's also a lesson in culture and tradition.

During our family meals at restaurants, we talk about the venue, the staff and the lives they may lead, what it's like to work in a place like that, why the food costs so much, what kinds of people go there and why, among many other topics.

Some parents might scoff and say these conversations are too much for children to get their heads around, but the truth is our children have these kinds of conversations about social environments and cultures all the time at school. The only challenge is for us, as parents, to make the effort to talk at their level, in words and ways that they can engage with.

Aside from sharing my love of food with my daughter and giving her some fun learning experiences, there's also a serious side to taking her to restaurants, including the most expensive ones.

There will come a time when people will try to impress her by trying to win her over with food and drink. I won't be there to hold her hand, make suggestions or offer advice. And I want her to grow up to be the the kind of confident young woman who isn't easily swayed or won over.

Who knows what will happen when the time comes for her to make those choices on her own? I can only hope that by giving her these experiences now and helping her be at ease in all sorts of environments and around different kinds of people, that she will become the type of person who can make the choices she wants - the ones she is happy to live with.

Fernando Gros is a writer, musician and photographer