Tips for Restaurant Dining

I have stopped going to restaurants with my child. He doesn’t eat what’s on the menu. He doesn’t sit at the table and usually causes a scene. What can I do to make going out to dinner a family event?

Restaurants require children with autism to negotiate various visual, auditory, and olfactory information. Selecting appropriate food choices, waiting for food to be delivered, and maintaining appropriate behavior at the table pose significant challenges to a successful visit. Successful restaurant visits depend on selecting appropriate goals. Your goals for your first restaurant visit will differ from your long-term goals. Start with small goals (with which your child will likely succeed) and work towards more challenging ones. For example, you may start visiting restaurants to have a single appetizer in the afternoon and then work toward a full meal during dinner time.

Visiting restaurants takes practice. Select a restaurant that you can visit several times. Children with autism often acquire skills in a familiar environment and then can generalize those skills to new environments. 

A few strategies can increase the likelihood of a successful restaurant visit. The first strategy involves timing.  Restaurants are less crowded Monday-Wednesday evening or from 2pm-4pm (between the lunch and dinner rushes). Visiting a restaurant at a quiet time will reduce the amount of stimuli a child must tolerate and the amount of time you will wait for a table and food delivery. Some restaurants will make special accommodations if you call ahead and explain that your child cannot yet wait to be seated at a table. You may be able to put in a food order for your child when ordering drinks so that their food arrives with appetizers.

A second strategy involves food selection. Decide whether or not your child will be expected to eat items listed on the menu. Most restaurant menus are available online. You can print the menu, review it with your child, and make a menu choice before you arrive at the restaurant. If your child can request from the server, you can practice that social exchange before going to the restaurant. If your child cannot eat items on the menu, you may wish to call the restaurant and ask if something can be prepared for your child to eat. 

The most challenging aspect of visiting restaurants for many children with autism is waiting. When children are not eating, they must engage in an alternative activity. If children are not engaged, interfering behavior (e.g., tantrum, yelling, stereotypy) is likely to occur. It is essential to set reasonable expectations of engagement. Many families have found success by bringing a bag of activities to the restaurant that can be performed at a table. These activities can be used at any point during the restaurant visit that requires your child to wait. These activities may include books, coloring books, puzzles, and games on a tablet or phone. Alternative activities should be selected that your child has a history of success with and do not generate more noise than you are willing to tolerate in a restaurant. For some children, dinner conversation can be tailored to include subjects in which the child can participate.

Remember that restaurant visiting takes practice. It may take a few practice trips before a child can sit down to a full meal. We encourage you to approach the process with patience and hope you’ll enjoy family restaurant dining for many years to come.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts from The Birchtree Center can be hired through Birchtree’s Outreach Program to provide consultation to families who are working on restaurant dining and other community activities. More information about Outreach consultation for families is here.

Legal Disclaimer: Information provided on this website is for informational purposes only.  You are responsible for the choice of any treatment or therapy option for your child.  Specific treatment, therapy or services should be provided to an individual only at the direction of the individual’s doctor, caregiver or other qualified professional.