Strategies for eating at restaurants
The requirement to eat can sometimes creep up on us. But with a little planning, over time, you can transform the seemingly impossible into a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Eating at different restaurants spontaneously can be a real challenge with ASD kids. But exposing your child to public environments early and consistently can help them accept new environments readily.
Restaurants can be particularly challenging because they have different smells, sounds, and strange people moving around constantly. Maybe you haven't braved this challenge yet, or maybe you and your spouse take turns eating, while the other occupies your child. Or maybe you've limited yourself to drive through and take out. Eating at "sit down" restaurants can be difficult with typical children as well. These strategies work across the board.
There are a number of strategies you can practice with your child that over time will allow them to adjust to the restaurant situation as it arises.
Using a "Foods" book, or custom "Menu"
To the right is an example of a custom menu. This example is an 8.5x11" tri-fold with the child's most commonly requested foods. Remember to include the option of "something else" to allow your child the flexibility to choose items not included in the menu. The tri-fold design includes three meals and three snacks per day; and fits easily in pocket or bag. Use it at home first - model it with other family members, so that it becomes familiar, then whenever the restaurant thing happens, you can just whip it out. There's space on the bottom for Velcro strips if you prefer to use icons. In that case, forgo the pre-printed pictures and place a Velcro dot in each square for mounting the icons.
The reverse side can be left white as a drawing surface, or you could print things on it, like the child's name, special interest pictures, or a game. A small brag book works well too. You can cut pictures out of grocery store adds, or wherever you find them, and slide them into the picture sleeves.
Preplanned Restaurant Visits
1. Make a plan:
Prepare you child with a visual schedule and a social story if you like. You can download the social story on the right of this web page as an example.
Order your meal by telephone in advance. (O's American Kitchen in San Marcos was the first restaurant we tried this with. The layout there was perfect.)
Place your order to go. Allow enough time for the order to be prepared and cooled enough to eat. You don't want to be sitting there blowing on the food, or waiting for the food to cool off. You can always bring your own food for your child if she has diet restrictions. But there is usually a couple of things you can add from the restaurant.
Once you know your order is ready, pick it up and carry it to a table. Unpack only what you think you will be able to eat during the time you have allocated. You also want to be prepared to leave quickly if you need to, and packing everything back up can be time consuming.
Pull out your "restaurant bag" of activities and toys to occupy your child. (I good restaurant bag includes: coloring books, sticker books, books to read, crayons, tape and some small toys. See image scroller to the right for an example.)
Consider bringing a personal place mat that your child uses at home. Having a familiar element can help a child feel more comfortable eating somewhere else. Don't be surprised if your child doesn't want to use it. Keep introducing it on subsequent trips to reduce stress associated with cross-environmental objects.
Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes, or whatever you think will work. You may stay a bit longer, but the timer is a reminder that the activity will end, thus reducing your child's anxiety.
If you are having a successful restaurant meal and want to add more time to the timer, let your child know by telling them while holding the timer, and announcing the amount of time being added: "5 More minutes." They will indicate by their behavior or by telling you whether the change is okay with them.
Adding small increments repeatedly is better than adding a larger increment all at once. If your child indicates that they have had enough and want to leave, reduce the timer to a smaller amount of time - even a minute. You are still adding time, just not as much. That way, they have some control, but you are the final authority.
2. Identify your support team:
Restaurant visits are always easier with another adult. If you have a spouse, review the plan with them in advance and tell them exactly what their roll will be. If you are receiving ABA, you can request for your therapist to accompany you.
Preplanned Buffet Restaurant
The plan is the same as with a restaurant. Prepare your child with a visual schedule. The wonderful thing about buffet restaurants is the way all of the food is laid out. It is visually enticing. It is also easy to get in and get out quickly. The best time to go to a buffet is on a week day, right when they open, usually 10 a.m. You will probably be the only one's there, and the food is guaranteed to be fresh and well presented, which is just what you want. If your child wants to look around, go with them and say, "Let's explore." If your schedule doesn't allow a mid-morning restaurant trip, do it when you can. The plan is the same.