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Do you think eating out teaches children anything valuable about food (or anything else)?

When I was a child, we ate out every single friday night, and maybe once on weekends (with extended family or family friends). My mother did all the cooking for the week on sunday afternoon. When my Dad, sister and I got home, it was our job to reheat the food, make a salad or prepare some other vegetable, and start the rice cooker. My mother wasn't a particularly good cook and hated doing it, so every friday night we went out, it was her break and a chance to eat some tasty well prepared food. As a family, we loved this ritual. As soon as my Dad picked us up friday, the debate on where to eat would start.

Fast forward to today...we have 3 kids, and my DS1 has food allergies, and right now I'm not working. We eat out maybe once a month, if that. Every time we do, I pay the bill and think "yikes, that is X % of my monthly grocery budget". I am wondering whether I should try to budget some funds for eating out more regularly/often. My kids really enjoy food, but they also enjoy special outings, new toys, new clothes, books, DVDs, etc. I mean, a good book, or legos, museum membership, etc. can be enjoyed over and over. A meal is over pretty quickly.

So I am interested in hearing what CHers think. Do you take your kids out to eat regularly? Why or why not? If you don't have kids, do you think eating out as a child had value? Or would you rather have had more toys/piano lessons/space camp/etc.? Thank you for sharing.

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  1. If finances allow once a month, then that's what is important, not overspending to eat out. That said, there are a lot of foods I'd never make at home and we explore--Viet, Ethiopian, Korean, fried food, etc. It expands their horizons. I think once a month is more than enough for that and do think there is value in that, as much as piano lessons or books (actually, given how good our public library is, I think spending money on books is a much bigger waste). There is a whole world out there, beyond what our kids see, and exploring the foods from different cultures is a big part of it.

    2 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      "It expands their horizons". I definitely agree. I cook fairly often but there are things that I don't/can't make at home, such as sushi. I get such pleasure when I see my 6 year old daughter eating sushi. Granted, it gets rather expensive, but we go out for Thai, Peruvian, Korean food too, and those are not that expensive.

      1. re: chowser

        I agree with everything you said. I'd also add that going to restaurants teaches kids how to behave in public, how to be considerate of those around you. Even if you just go to hole-in-the-wall places with little ambience, kids realize they can't make a scene, or run amok or treat waitstaff rudely. It's a real "teachable" moment.

      2. If it's an either one or the other question then I don't know about your situation so I can't answer. But if it's a question of whether taking children to eat out has value, it definitely does. It teaches children how to behave in social situations.

        1. I would hope that eating out with children teaches children how to behave in public, how to eat with forks and knives and spoons (versus fingers) and maybe, quite possibly, expands their palates.

          1. I don't think you should wreck your budget for the educational or social benefits of eating out. How old are your other kids?

            4 Replies
            1. re: Steve

              Oh, don't worry, I don't wreck my daily food budget. The money for eating out comes out of fun money...the question I'm grappling with is how to prioritize the fun money, and what/whether restaurant eating provides/teaches other than food. I can make a tasty dinner at home for under $20 easily. If we eat out, depending on what it is, it's around $50-$60 (generally family friendly ethnic places). When I pay, I can't help thinking we could have eaten at home and had $30-$40 to blow on something else.

              The kids are 2, 4, and 6 yo. They are not picky, have good table manners, and behave well in public. Friends, family, and acquaintances say they are a joy to eat with and to watch eat. They know how to use fork, spoon, knife (not the 2 yo), and are starting to develop skill with chopsticks (not the 2 yo) and fingers (DH's side is Indian and eating neatly with fingers is an important skill too). I guess I am just interested in thoughts on what (if anything) eating out teaches that you don't get from eating at home (or the homes of friends). Maybe I am just fishing for reasons to eat out more LOL. Thanks for everyone's thoughts so far.

              1. re: little.tiger

                I agree with a lot of what's been said, and I also would like to point out that some of my favorite "family" times together were when we ate out as a family (of course, some of that might have been that my mother was not particularly known for her cooking :-)

                But I was particularly interested in your comment about eating with the fingers; that is one battle I'm not sure I ever mastered. My husband is also East Indian, and it is very hard to explain to a four year old why its ok and probably expected to eat with fingers at Auntie X's house, but definitely NOT at Grandpa's. Now that my husband and I are empty nesters, I too have gotten into the habit of eating with my fingers. I have arthritic hands, and sometimes its just easier to grasp the food! Its especially something I do when eating Indian food, naturally, even if I'm at a restaurant or have invited friends over. I have caught myself eating with my hands in front of friends recently, and have wondered to myself if they find it rude or gross. If you have a special code word you use to remind them that its a silverware situation, maybe you could share it and I could teach it to my husband to use on me :-)

                1. re: janetofreno

                  Janet, we don't have a special code word, the situation at hand usually clearly dictates what we use. I have actually never had one of the kids ask me why they can eat dosas with hands but not spaghetti (or whatever), it has always been the way things are to them I guess. If we are with Indian relatives and friends and eating Indian food, they can use hands. Thanksgiving turkey dinner, fork and knife. Chinese/Korean/Japanese/etc. is an opportunity to use chopsticks. I guess you could ask your DH to give you "the look". "The Look" is what the kids get when they know they are doing something they shouldn't ;)

                2. re: little.tiger

                  I haven't found a thing to disagree with here - but I do feel that if times are tight, maybe dining out isn't that important, especially if you're a good cook who enjoys it. I think it's important for kids to learn gracious guest/customer behavior; how to tip; how to behave in a scenario that's a cultural norm, but they can learn that at home, whereas they might not get a chance to see Picassos again...

              2. I wouldn't pick dining out per se as a way of educating kids, if that's the only reason. On the other hand if you dine out at whatever frequency, I'd say include them. It teaches them interaction with "authority figures" (waitstaff)--even learning to order is an important experience, it exposes them to options in food, it exposes them to a broader social context involving food, it might even be FUN but that's of course a gamble. All I can say is that as a child I loved going out to restaurants and my parents wisely deferred to my choices. My grandchildren now very much enjoy restaurants and are allowed to say yes/no and it works. So, long story short, I'd say it's a plus but not a must.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Masonville

                  I like how you phrased this. In our house we rarely eat out because I love to cook. It's my hobby, and the kids get a fair bit of "broadening" from that. But when we're on vacation, we eat out, and splurge. We've always treated our kids like "young adults" and they have pretty sophisticated tastes. So as Masonville said, if it's part of *your* life, include them, but don't feel like you have to do it as an educational process. I'm not sure it's "worth" the money for its own sake.