Skip to main content
Family Files

Dining away from home with young children

people eating at a table

I do not enjoy cooking. I CAN cook – I just don’t like to. So, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to eat out at restaurants quite often – when he also chose not to cook. When we had our son, I tried to cook more at home, but we slipped back into that same routine of going out to eat several days of the week – and our son was right there with us. I felt like it was good for him socially and would give him the opportunity to try a variety of foods, and to this day, there is not too many things he won’t eat! But it can be a challenge at times to take young children outside of the home for meals. The Illinois Early Learning Project (IELP) has a tip sheet on this very topic that I would like to share with you. 

According to IELP, young children eat some meals outside of their home, including locations like: other homes, schools, parks, food courts, cafeterias, hotels, and restaurants. Supporting young children as they learn to enjoy meals in new places takes some effort, but the outcome is rewarding.  

The first step toward a good dining experience in a new place is a good dining experience in a familiar place. Use meals at home to teach and practice expectations related to handling food (fingers or utensils), politely asking for or saying no to food, chatting with others during the meal, and asking to be excused. Mealtime skills used at home are useful in new places.  

Dining in a new place may be challenging. Parents know their child best. They can anticipate challenges and provide encouragement. “You’re in training for the adventure of having nice meals away from home!” Children can prepare for a new dining experience by understanding how it is the same and/or different than their familiar setting. Concrete examples are helpful.  

  • “At home, food is on the table when you arrive. At the cafeteria, we’ll select our food and bring it to our table.” 
  • “At home, our dinner lasts about 20 minutes. Our holiday meal at grandma’s house will be longer.” 

Also encourage children to ask questions about the upcoming meal. 

Anticipate possible challenges. What is difficult for one child might be pleasant for another. A child that enjoys trying new foods may be excited to visit a buffet or potluck; a child that resists new foods may find this overwhelming. Some children may experience sensory overload in restaurants that are very loud. Acknowledge potential challenges and offer a few acceptable choices. Be clear about options that are not available.  

  • “We are going to the neighbor’s house for dinner. When they offer you a food, you can say “yes, please” or “no, thank you.” We aren’t bringing our own food from home.”  
  • “We will stay seated at the table in this restaurant. Before our food arrives, you’ll get to color on the placemat. Then we’ll eat. When the server clears your place, you can color or play with your bag of farm animals. We won’t be walking around.”  

It can take many tries to get comfortable dining away from home. Take small steps on this journey. Start with an experience that has more similarities than differences.  An example might be to pack a lunch to eat in the food court at the mall. The food will be familiar, but the experience (seating, lights, sounds, smells) will be new. Or you may try a new food on a picnic in your favorite park. The new food may be a challenge, but the setting will be comforting.  

Hopefully, these tips will help make eating away from home a more enjoyable experience for both child and parent!! 


Source: Illinois Early Learning Project tip sheet