Warning: I am not an authority on parenting (I am only 4 years deep into this thing). The following is not a lesson in parenting best practices. It’s not really even an attempt at useful tips, tricks, and hacks. If you’re looking for that, probably best to stop right here. This is simply an honest account of my typical experience going out to eat with my 4-year-old, my 15-month-old, and my wife.
If you have kids, maybe you can relate and, as a parent, sometimes it feels really good to know you’re not the only one going through these experiences. If you don’t have kids and possibly want kids someday, then you might want to stop reading right here. Or proceed at your own risk and perhaps you’ll gain a new perspective on what it’s like to be that family the next time you’re at a restaurant.
The Seven Phases of Eating Out with Kids
Phase 1: I Have the Best Idea!
On paper, going out to eat with little ones looks like a pretty compelling idea. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a meal together with no prep and no dirty dishes? The only things we have to concern ourselves with are chopping it up around the dinner table, belly laughs, and creating sweet, sweet memories. My mind pans to every family restaurant commercial.
You know the ones. Dad asks little Jimmy to pass the bottomless breadsticks and just before he hands over the basket, he steals one and they all laugh and laugh. Even the waiter raises an eyebrow and can’t help but chuckle. Yep, that’s what I want. This is going to be a joyous occasion. This is, simply put, my best idea. (Critical to a successful Phase 1 is having no memory of Phases 2-6)
Phase 2: Packing Up.
As the commercial jingle fades in my mind, the first wave of panic settles in. We need to pack up! Every parent has their own version of an eating-out survival bag. They come in various styles, sizes, and price points. However, no matter which you choose, one thing is for certain, everything that should be in the bag is not in that bag. In fact, everything is scattered all over the house. Each item has been carefully placed in a host of different locations throughout the house and you have five minutes to find them all.
I always wanted to be on Supermarket Sweep and this experience is a good substitute. Our bag usually contains baby wipes, snacks (yes, we pack food to go to a restaurant, but more on that later), diaper, changing pad, small toys, change of clothes, bib, hand sanitizer, and sweatshirts in case the AC is blasting. If I’m lucky, my oldest usually asks “When are we going? Why aren’t we leaving?” on repeat throughout this process. Ready, set, rage pack!
Phase 3: The Arrival.
This is where the tension starts to mount. We pile into the restaurant, survey the room, hope that they are able to seat us, and wonder what patrons will be lucky enough to be graced with our presence. If we have to wait for over 15 minutes, we are probably moving on. But it looks like we are in luck as the host approaches with menus. “Would you like a high chair for the baby?” Outer voice: “That would be fantastic.” Inner voice: “No we’re good… he’ll just gently perch on my shoulder like a parrot this evening.” Seated and sorted, we now wait with great anticipation to see which one of us will spill their water cup first.
Phase 4: Best Laid Crayons.
From the moment we sit, the clock begins to tick towards the inevitable breaking point. Who will break first? What will be the cause? What decibel level will we hit this time? But ultimately, time is really the thing that weighs on you as a parent. How much time do you have before you and your fellow patrons know it’s time for you all to go?
I know I should probably be saying something like, pay no mind to how other people are feeling about your kids if they are disruptive, but that is easier said than done. For example, since my youngest doesn’t talk yet, he generally communicates via these ear-piercing screeches which could mean a variety of things, but the two most likely candidates are 1) I want to eat or 2) I don’t want to eat. His language is nuanced. Anyway, when he lets his pterodactyl mating call rip, I feel a thousand eyes on us from every corner of the room (not to judge the Judgy Judgersons because I used to be one).
Fortunately, we have a few tools at our disposal to weather this first part of the storm, most importantly snacks (told you bringing food to a restaurant would come in handy). I’m sure the wait staff hates to see the cereal puffs come out because they know most of them will end up ground into the carpet, but this kid can shatter glass with his banshee scream, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep his beak full. My 4-year old gets in on the snack buffet as well because he’s already asked where his food is even though we haven’t ordered yet. He is still grasping that he actually doesn’t have telepathy.
That’s when inevitably a member of the wait staff comes over with paper placemats and crayons. They present it to us as if it’s the ultimate cure-all for our woes. The magician pulls a rabbit from their hat and we all sit in wonder. Four small pieces of colored wax have come to save the day. Somehow they are able to pass the crayons down from their high horse as their cape flaps behind them. Thank you for bringing a knife to a gunfight. Scratch that…you brought crayons to a gunfight. At best, the novelty of the crayons buys us 3 minutes and that’s when we break the emergency glass and pull the classic desperation move which we will pay for dearly later, but we do it anyway. “Can we place an order for the kids’ meals now?”
Phase 5: Death, Taxes, and Chicken Fingers.
Ordering from kids’ menus is as predictable as a Hallmark movie plot. I really don’t even need to watch it to know how this is going to end. We all know the big-time lawyer who returns to her small town, for the first time in years to save the family business, is 100 percent going to run into her old high school crush and fall in love. And we all know my kid is without a doubt ordering chicken fingers the instant he hears they are an option which they always are. Sometimes pasta with butter gets some love, but come on, we all know chicken fingers rule the roost. No parent is particularly proud about ordering chicken fingers for their kids. Yes, they can be delicious, but come on… chicken fingers? They don’t have much nutritional value, they never come with anything green, and they are far and away from the most creepily-named food (“Hold my beer” says Fish Fingers). Sure we’d love to expand their horizons a bit, but the path of least resistance looks pretty good under the pressure.
Now back to placing the kids’ order before you’ve had a chance to decide what you want. This can feel like a real hack. The faster we order for them, the faster their food comes, the longer you have before things fall apart, right? Well…. Yes, their food comes out first which certainly brings a moment of peace over the table. But now where’s our food? Tick tock. We only ordered it ten minutes after the kids’ order. Tick tock. Have you seen our waiter? Tick tock. Seriously, has anyone seen our waiter? I feel like I should go see if he’s ok. Tick tock. As the third and final chicken finger begins to get devoured by my oldest, it’s like watching the wick of Wile E. Coyote’s dynamite approach its end. And then the F-word gets dropped… “Dad, I’m FULL.” And on cue, our food finally arrives.
Phase 6: The Sugar Rush to the End.
This brings us to the next and final fork in the road. On the left, I imagine myself trying to eat my entree in the middle of a mosh pit. It’s loud, tumultuous, sweaty, angry, and even though it’s all in good fun some participants can take it a little too far. On the right, lies a road made of brownies where the clouds are pillows of whipped cream in a strawberry ice cream sky. In other words, “If everyone is good, you can have dessert.”
Dessert is the most powerful arrow in the quiver. As the question escapes my lips, our wild Mr. Hyde reverts back to a refined Dr. Jekyll in an instant. The promise of ice cream brings out the best in our kids even if it’s fleeting. Of course, the piper always needs to get paid and the sugar rush on the ride home reminds us of that. We meet again, Mr. Hyde.
Phase 7: Reconciliation.
Ok so I painted a pretty dire picture here, but regardless of what goes down in Phases 2-6, I will always find myself back at Phase 1. Sure eating out with kids can be rife with pitfalls and stressful moments, but some of my favorite moments with my oldest son have been eating out at restaurants and I’m looking forward to bringing my 15-month-old out to eat more often now that some COVID restrictions have lifted despite his pterodactyl screeches.
As a parent, it’s advantageous to have a limited short-term memory or at least a handy pair of rose-colored glasses. It’s worth any of the trouble for those moments of pure joy, sharing food and experiences together. And even if it is a disaster, someday you’ll look back at it and laugh (so I have been told). So pass the breadsticks, little Jimmy.
Top 3 Reasons to Experience Spyce with Kids
At Spyce, we don’t have chicken fingers. We actually don’t have a kid’s menu at all. However, that doesn’t mean we aren’t kid-friendly. In fact, Spyce can be an amazing experience for kids for a few reasons.
1) Kids Are In Control
Not only do kids get to pick their own bowl, but also they can customize it as they’d like removing all the things they don’t like and adding all of their favorites. Studies have shown that if kids are involved in the cooking process, they are more likely to eat the food versus those not involved in the process. Using our user-friendly app or kiosk, they can see all of the photos of all the ingredients they can modify. This is as close as you can get to allowing kids to participate in actual meal prep at a restaurant.
For example, my son wanted pasta so we started with the Presto and then he took out the things he didn’t want (asparagus, tomatoes, pesto, and breadcrumbs) and added what he wanted (mushrooms, strawberries, mango, halloumi, and cucumber). Now maybe pasta with fruit isn’t your thing, but he absolutely loved it. I was so thrilled to see him enjoying a bowl full of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables rather than a brown, fried chicken finger.
2) Expanding Their Horizons
Since Spyce doesn’t offer any of the usual kids menu creature comforts, they are forced to try new things. Spyce’s menu is influenced by global cuisines, but not to worry, there are some go-to favorites like pasta, ramen, and familiar fruits and veggies. Studies have shown that exposing infants and children to a wider range of tastes and textures, specifically fruits and veggies, early in life can help to increase their acceptance to them later in life and expand their palette.
In other words, it can potentially help to decrease the chicken finger dependency (better known as CFD). I was able to get my son to try halloumi cheese by framing them as mini-grill cheese sandwiches without the bread, so he selected them and loved them.
Horizon expansion is not just limited to food. You’ll never hear the question “Where is my food?” from kids at Spyce. After ordering, you can head over to the Infinite Kitchen to see all of the tubes full of fresh food. Then it’s time for the exciting part: your child’s bowl emerges with their name printed on it and moves through the Infinite Kitchen along the track picking up all of the ingredients they just selected.
It’s basically like watching your own personal model train move from station to station picking up all of its delicious passengers. And this all happens in about three minutes! As a bonus, if your kids want to learn more about robotics after their visit to Spyce, they might be interested in trying out some of our at-home FAB (Food. Art. Building.) lessons which you can find here.
No matter where you decide to break bread and celebrate Father’s Day this year with your family, my advice is to remember that these moments are fleeting, so try to embrace them with as much patience and mindfulness as you can possibly muster. After the past year in quarantine, I am so thankful that we even have the option to go out as a family and I am really looking forward to it. So bring on the screeches, the whining, the spills, and the relentless unanswerable questions! Phase 1, here we come.