The Impossible Task: Eating Out

It occurred to me that most people go out to eat to relax.  To have fun.  They enjoy sitting down with their friends and family and having a nice meal that they didn’t have to cook.  What an idyllic, impossible picture!  I want to laugh hysterically at this, because eating out is never relaxing or fun for us.

So why do we do it?  Well, I do still enjoy not having to cook.  But, most importantly, our kids have to learn to function in this critical social setting.  They have to build up tolerance for the noise, the lighting, and the bustle of lots of people.  They have to learn to wait patiently in a small space without losing it.

You might think my kids are spoiled brats with no patience.  Sure, they have no patience, but that’s part of their disabilities.  The rest of the issues are directly connected to their Sensory Processing Disorder issues and their Gifted/overexcitability issues.  We know their limits and it’s not misbehavior that makes these outings difficult.  It’s those dratted invisible disabilities cropping up again.

Of course, we pick our battles.  We only go to family friendly restaurants because I’m not going to ruin someone’s expensive dinner with my melt-down kids.  It’s easy to figure out family friendly around here because they serve normal-sized portions (and offer more than 3 options.)  Don’t believe me?  Try taking your kids to Olive Garden, for example.  The Engineer glanced incredulously at his side of grapes and loudly announced that they must have forgotten some.  He had about 5 grapes in that little dish.

We’ve narrowed it down to about 4 places that are a good fit.  And one of those has decorations that the Destroyer freaks out about while the Engineer flips over the noise factor.  That’s an order-out place for us.

Before we even leave, there are details that need to be dealt with.  I have a mental checklist depending on the restaurant that we’re going to.

  • Food that the Destroyer will eat
  • Nibbles for waiting
  • Tablets
  • Small quiet toys and fidgets
  • Noise canceling headphones
  • Bendy straws
  • Kid plates with separated portions


Want to know what it’s like for us to eat out?  Let me describe it:

Last night, we went out for a birthday celebration.  A steakhouse.  In retrospect, a poor choice because of the wait time to cook a steak versus a burger.  We went early, as we always do to avoid long wait times and a crush of people.  Early means before 5:00 p.m. but that’s ok because we don’t mess up bedtimes too much.

Despite the early time the parking lot was crowded.  The Engineer started to get worried about finding a parking spot.  His anxieties kick up a notch when he has to walk too far.  Luckily, we found a handicapped parking spot and all was well.

Even more luckily, we were seated right after walking in the door.  Waiting for a table sets a bad precedent for the meal.  For some reason, restaurants like to decorate their waiting areas with cutesy stuff that my kids would love to destroy.  I hate cutesy stuff.

At the table:

Once finally seated, the kids eagerly ripped apart the tiny crayon boxes and colored their kids’ menus.  For about 3 minutes.  Then the Destroyer decided coloring on paper was boring, and he managed to get the tablet bag, my sweater, and the table before I pried the crayons out of his sweaty little fingers.

We were all starting to get sweaty because the heat was on and it was 70 degrees out there.  Sweltering.  And the place was packed, so all those people just added to the heat and the noise.  Not a good thing for our sensory-sensitive kids.

We ordered drinks and food.  The kids slurped down their drinks trying to cool down.  They started to lose it – whining about being hungry after devouring the tiny bread offering that the waitress gave us.  Tablet time!

Invariably, when we pull out the kids’ tablets at a restaurant, we get disapproving looks and quiet comments.  I don’t understand that – the kids are quiet, so other patrons should be happy.  Why would people care about our screen time limits?  Do they understand what would happen if we didn’t bring tablets?

This time was no different.   No sooner did I hand the Destroyer his tablet than I got snotty looks from 3 different people.  The grandparent-aged couple at the table across the aisle couldn’t stop giving us disapproving glances.  I wanted to laugh when one of them pulled out her Kindle and set it on the table, completely ignoring her husband.

Let’s eat!

Our food arrived.  Tablets were put up, and portions arranged just so for our picky little kids.  The Engineer tends to stuff himself, so we have to keep reminding him to slow down and listen to his tummy.  The Destroyer decided that he didn’t like grilled cheese sandwich tonight and refused to eat anything but fries and apples.  Oh well.  They used big, tough bread that’s too much for his small jaws, so I understand.

The Engineer whines about not having dippers for his fries: we steal the Destroyer’s ketchup for him.  My little food-averse man doesn’t care anyway – ketchup is messy, and he screams when it gets on his hand.  Or fry.  Dinner is a race – parents trying to eat as quickly as possible because we know we’re up against a ticking clock.  So much for relaxing.

The kids were occupied with food for about 10 minutes, then they were done.  And by done, I mean ready to leave.  I scarf down my baked potato and chew quickly: time to go.  We signal for the check and to-go boxes: it takes forever to get them.

They’re done:

Tablets again, but the Destroyer isn’t having it.  He’s finished.  He starts throwing himself back and forth in his high chair and tries to fling the tablet.  I hand him my phone and he chuckles in satisfaction: PBS kids!  I ignore yet another irritated glance from our fellow patrons who think I’m rewarding him and warn him not to throw my phone.

The Engineer is losing it too.  He slides down further and further on his seat, trying to cram more food in his mouth as he ends up under the table.  After several attempts to get him up and sitting correctly, Mr. Genius races through his food and finishes.  Time to split up.

Out they go to the car.  The Princess decides to stay with me as I box things up and pay the bill.  She’s on her tablet too, so she’s fairly calm and quiet.

Everything finished, done! We navigate out of the warren of tables and head to the car.

Mission accomplished.

As meals out go, this one was actually one of our better ones.  We’ve had meals where the Engineer spent most of his time under the table, or the Destroyer wouldn’t stop screaming because his food was touching itself.  It’s hit or miss.  One day, maybe we can do this without the tablet crutch!  I’m not optimistic about ever being able to calmly eat my food at a relaxed pace.  Maybe when the kids are grown.  We’ll see.


Note: please understand that we don’t ruin other people’s meals.  If our kids can’t handle it, we leave.  There are plenty of places that we simply avoid because we know it won’t work, and we always ask to be seated somewhere out of the way or with other families (we joke about the “kid” section.)  I think that a large portion of our society would be completely happy if they didn’t have to see/hear kids at all – and our special needs kids are often judged and criticized harshly because they have issues.  They will never improve if we don’t keep trying.



  1. Thanks for sharing, and although in a lesser form I recognise your story. With my oldest having ADHD and my youngest SPD it has been a struggle to go out, restaurant or the even bigger task: vacations and flying…

    But over the years thibgs have become better. Where our youngest at age 3 would eat only 3 items now at age 7 he eats a ton of stuff. He also does not mind food touching each other anymore and he eats some things with his hands (huge for someone who does not want to have anything touch him).

    So yes, keep trying! Keep going! Don’t care about the looks. They don’t know what you are going thru and you should not care what they think. If you give in to your kids special needs and try and protect them from the world that seems loud and bad their world will become smaller and smaller and so will yours.
    Life will become easier when they become older and are able to articulate more and accept more. So look forward to that more quiet dinner (which for me still includes tablets) in a few years when you are out of high chairs.


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