Teach Your Kids to Order Food in a Restaurant - My Three-Year-Old Does It!

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My goal as a mother is to teach my children independence and life skills so that by the time they leave our home, they know how to function as capable adults. Since they were very young, I've been teaching them things like cleaning up, cooking, laundry, social skills, and self care. One of the skills we work on from a very early age is choosing and ordering food from a menu. This might sound like a silly thing to worry about, but it's important. It requires a variety of skills: 

  • Reading a menu
  • Narrowing down choices
  • Choosing what would be most appealing and nutritionally appropriate
  • Social skills as they interact with the restaurant employees helping them
  • Feeling empowered
  • Being decisive
  • Confidence
  • Trying new foods

We eat most of our meals at home, but we do like to take them out to eat. Sometimes it's dinner on a Saturday night. Adam takes them for breakfast a few Saturdays a month and lets me sleep in. They also get to have a special birthday dinner at the restaurant of their choice alone with mom and dad every year. As soon as our kids are about two years old, we teach them to order their own food in restaurants. Since my kids basically eat everything, it's fun to take them to new restaurants and introduce them to new foods.

 

THE HOW

A two-year-old can't read, so we offer them a few options that we know they will like and explain them and ask questions to help them decide. Even when they are older, like seven years old, and can read, a menu can be very overwhelming, so we point out the top four things they would probably like, discuss the options and help them make a choice. Now that our oldest are ten, they can read the whole menu themselves and make a choice without our help. When the server arrives at the table, or they get to the counter to order, we help them place their order themselves. Here are some examples of how it might go before the server arrives or before we get to the counter:

 

For a little one:
"Do you want chicken or a hamburger?" Hamburger

"Do you want cheese on your hamburger?" Yes

"Do you want fries or fruit?" Fruit

"Do you want water or juice?" Juice.

When it's their turn to order I will whisper to them slowly, "Say 'I want a cheeseburger please. I would like fruit and apple juice. Thank you.'"

 

For an older child who can read but the volume of choices is overwhelming I will ask similar questions but offer more choices.

"Do you want chicken, fish or steak?" Fish

"They have salmon, scallops and shrimp. They are here on the menu." Then we read those three options together.

"The salmon comes with whipped potatoes, and the shrimp comes with pasta. Does that help you narrow it down?" I answer any questions and talk through the preparation methods or ingredients they might not be familiar with.

If I've eaten there before I will also point out things I've ordered and enjoyed in the past. "I've had the salmon and it was really good." Or "I've tried the scallops and was disappointed because..."

When the server arrives we allow them to tell the server what they want. If they stumble or forget what they chose, we will whisper to them and remind them what they chose. We remind them to address the server instead of us, to look them in the eye, and to speak up.

 

Our ten-year-olds have reached the point that they are pretty familiar with what they do and don't like, can read a menu and narrow down their choices. I still make recommendations of things I've really enjoyed or if there are some things on the menu I think they would particularly enjoy, but those are things I do when I eat out with friends who are trying a restaurant for the first time. We also teach them rules like don't order fish at a burger place. You will typically be happier ordering the things that restaurant specializes in. I answer any questions they have and let them choose what they would like.

 

THE WHY

When our kids were very young, we often took a babysitter or helper with us so we could be safer at the beach or the pool. When you have 5 kids ages 3 and under, being around water is nerve-wracking. One year, we took a high school-age girl with us. She was an outgoing, fun, social girl who played really well with our kids and whom our kids really enjoyed. We thought she was a perfect choice. We spent seven days at the beach, eating out for every meal. 

When meal time rolled around, the server went around the table taking orders from our eight-year-olds, our seven-year-old, and our five-year-old. When it was our helper's turn to order, we discovered this girl had no idea how to read a menu, choose and order her own food. The server asked for her order, and she dropped her eyes and mumbled, "I don't know." We assured her she could order whatever she wanted. "I don't care," she said to her lap. Well what do you like? "I don't know." Do you like chicken? Hamburgers? Steak? Pasta? "It doesn't matter." What do you want to eat? "Whatever is on the kids' menu." What? She was an athlete, and I know she ate more than that. Even the kids menu has choices on it.

I was stunned. I'd never seen anything like this. She wasn't a shy girl. She came from a family that could afford to eat in restaurants and did. I finally ordered her some spaghetti because she refused to do anything, and I figured everyone likes spaghetti. I had to do this for her every single meal for the entire trip. It was exhausting. As the week went on I discovered that she had never ordered her own food from a menu. EVER. Her parents always chose her food and ordered for her. I couldn't believe it. She was a smart, vibrant girl who was more than capable of doing this, but she had never had the opportunity. Her well-meaning parents had robbed her of the opportunities to practice a life skill from an early age. 

 

ALL THE QUESTIONS

Do you intervene with their choices?

Yes. If we go out to breakfast and they want pancakes with a side of hash browns and toast, I will remind them that those are all starches and the meal isn't balanced. Too many starches in the morning will make them feel sick and tired the rest of the morning. I will tell them to choose one of the starches and a protein and fruit or veggies to go with it to balance it out. At dinner my daughter has tried to order just macaroni and cheese, and I've done the same thing. You can have the mac n cheese, but you need some protein and a vegetable to go with it. Also, if we are planning to get dessert because it's a special occasion, I might say, "Since we are going to have dessert, and that's a lot of sugar, you'll feel better if you eat something with more vegetables and fewer starches for dinner."

Do you discuss prices?

We do. At a fast food or similar restaurant, they can pretty much choose anything. At a nicer restaurant we will direct them to reasonably priced items. If they choose Kobe beef, we will gently point out the price of a steak like that and say we are sticking to this price range. They learn that when you eat out at nice places, it's important to keep prices in mind. This will be especially important when they eat out with other families, with their employer, on a date, etc. It's important to be considerate of the person who is paying the bill, and sticking to low to mid-range prices is a safe bet. There is usually a lot to choose from in that area. For dessert we usually order a few different desserts to share, reminding them that it's a good way to enjoy some dessert without eating too much sugar and without increasing the bill too much.

What if my child is too shy to order themselves?

The younger you start the easier it is, but it's never too late to start. If your child withers at the idea of speaking to a stranger, start with the choosing part. Teaching them to make the choices of what they want to eat will boost their confidence, and as time goes on, they will gain the confidence to speak up and say it themselves. This should be a positive experience, a boosting experience, a confidence-building experience. Berating your child because they were rude and refused to speak to the server will only cause them to withdraw more. Praise any efforts and gains they make. They don't need a standing ovation, but a simple, "Good job choosing." "Thanks for telling me what you want." will go a long way.

Doesn't this slow down the ordering process?

Yes it does. But I think of our family and home as a training ground, and as much as I love to be efficient and get though things as quickly as possible with a family of eight, there are things that we let go of and remember the purpose of the exercise.

Don't the restaurant workers get impatient?

I've never had that happen. I waited tables in college. Having a little kid order food is A-D-O-R-A-B-L-E. They always comment how cute it is that our little kids are ordering. When they are a little older and a little less cute, the servers have always been patient. Also, the important thing is we help them make all of their decisions BEFORE we get to the counter or the server arrives to take our order. We often start talking about the kinds of food they have in the car while we are driving. "The restaurant we are going to serves Mexican food. They have tacos, burritos, enchiladas and carne asada, which is steak with grilled peppers and onions. Start thinking about what sounds good to you." We are prepared to place our order, so we aren't taking up anyone else's time, not the employees' and not those who are waiting in line behind us or at other tables. Our kids are more efficient at ordering than some adults I know. 

I don't have kids at home. Why should I care?

Maybe you are a grandparent, an aunt, a godparent, etc. Any opportunity you have to spend time with a child in a restaurant is a great time to work with them on this. You don't have to be a child's parent to have a positive influence on them. 

 

Did I answer all the questions? Do your kids order their own food? What other life skills do you practice with your kids? Don't forget to share on Pinterest, Facebook, Stumbleupon and anywhere else you think others would enjoy this.