Whole-Family Outings Are Hard, So We Do This Instead

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I remember one of the last times we took our family of six to a restaurant. And it’s memorable because it was awful.

Two of my kids had received reward certificates from school for a free meal at a local restaurant. After asking us to please, please, please go for the fourteenth time, we decided to get it over with. We loaded up in the minivan early one Saturday night and made the short drive.

Getting a table for six can take a while, even at an obnoxiously early time. The hostess had us smoosh into a booth that would have better seated four.

We hadn’t been there for five minutes when a group of servers loudly bellowed their franchised restaurant version of “Happy Birthday,” huddled around a nearby table. One of them holding a cupcake with a single, lit candle on it. At the end of the song, they collectively yelled “Yee haw!” with one of their hands in the air, fake lassoing.

I rolled my eyes at my husband, but he didn’t see me. He was leaning over our preschooler who was sobbing. The kid was in all-out meltdown mode over the commotion.

We pulled out a bag of art supplies that we keep in the car, trying to distract the kids. It worked for three minutes, tops. My child with sensory challenges had discovered that the underside of the booth was solid wood, perfect for repeatedly banging the heels of his shoes into it. This made his seatmates irritable. They also couldn’t stop arguing over who should have the single black crayon.

Directly behind us was the mid-point station where the servers kept extra pitchers of tea and water. It’s also, apparently, the best place to complain about annoying customers and managers. We were seated smack-dab in the middle of the chaos, subject to so many conversations.

This was one of those restaurants that had décor on every square inch of the walls and even the ceiling. Car models and random objects dangled over us like a jumbo baby crib mobile. The speakers blared 1990s country music.


And why does every restaurant have a big-screen TV every two-and-a-half feet around the entire perimeter of the restaurant? It’s so freaking awkward when you can’t tell if the people seated beside you are staring at your loud kids or the screen that’s positioned a few inches above your head?

The server came to our table with glasses of water, forgetting lids for the kids’ cups. You know what that means, right? Spills. Lots of spills. She also gave us loaf of bread to share, big enough for a Barbie, and a knife to slice it with. We promptly handed the knife back to her, because, kids.

She took our order and buzzed off to the next table. We tried to make conversation, but we could hardly hear one another. I could, however, clearly make out the five-hundred times my kids were whining about how they were “starving.”

When the server returned thirty minutes later, it took her three trips to the kitchen to deliver our lukewarm, half-underdone, half-overdone entrees.

The kids claimed they were “done eating” less than two minutes after the last plate, which happened to be mine, arrived. I was shoveling my food in, which tasted more like hospital cafeteria salad than “gourmet” as the menu promised, while my kids wrestled over the salt and pepper shakers and spiral bound cocktail menu.

We paid the bill, which was ridiculously high for mediocre food. And that was minus the two free kiddie meals. Though I would have fared better if I would have ordered the big-as-your-head $7 margarita special. The drive home involved a disastrous combination of crying, bickering, and multiple snack requests.

This was three years ago, and since then, we’ve rarely gone to dinner as a family. Frankly, it’s just not worth it.

Call me the fun-killer if you want, but I don’t have the energy, patience, or courage to take my big family out to dinner. I’d rather get a pap smear or watch an episode of Calliou, thank you very much.

Of course, my kids are older now and more mature. But this doesn’t change the fact that eating out is awful, for many reasons.

First, it’s incredibly expensive for a family of six to eat at a restaurant. My three oldest kids can eat adult-size portions. Even without ordering appetizers, desserts, or drinks other than water, the bill comes, and I’m like, cha-freaking-ching!

There’s been plenty of times my kids have ordered a plate of food, and then after two bites claim they don’t like what they ordered, pushing the plate aside. The burger toppings are weird, the fry seasoning is gross, they don’t like how buttery the vegetables are.

I can cook at home, for far less money. And because my kids are older and more responsible, they help prep and cook meals at home, set the table, and clean up after. Voila. Life skills, people.

With summer in full swing, I’ve had parent friends ask me and my kids to meet up with them at the zoo or children’s exploration museum. And I always say no. The crowds, the heat, and of course, the cost are just ridiculous. And I know the reality. We will be collectively miserable within the first half-hour of our “fun” outing.

Going to a designated child’s entertainment space in summer is eerily similar to “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie.” Once you finally get your kids out the door, because someone had to poop the second everyone had put their shoes on, there’s been six arguments between there and arrival. As soon as you get there, you have to find your friends, and they’ve had an equally pleasant car ride.

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You walk in the doors and immediately the kids spot the concession stand selling disgusting, overpriced nachos and unnaturally colorful slush drinks. So you pay to do an activity, while the kids don’t do the activity, and instead, want to have snacks. Then they complain they don’t feel well and mope around instead of engaging with the interactive solar system exhibit. That is, until they spot the gift shop where cheap crap is marked up 1000%. The kids beg for a neon orange t-shirt to commemorate the day.

Thanks, but no thanks.

My kids can have just as much fun playing with their friends in the sprinkler in our front yard and devouring popsicles. They can learn just as much about animals or solar systems by reading library books. Fun and learning can be entirely uncomplicated and nearly free.

I also want my kids to know that exploring a museum, attending a concert, going to a theme park, or eating at a restaurant should be a special occasion, not a frequent occurrence. There is joy in discovering magical places and enjoying them. But the wonder and appreciation dissipate if done too often.

My husband and I have established a great way to help our kids enjoy their lives without the collective misery of whole-family outings. We take our kids on dates. They can pick the place, and they get our undivided attention. Whether we’re devouring gourmet ice cream or playing a round of putt-putt golf, our kids are individually appreciated and listened to.

Most of the time, staying in for dinner and entertainment is our jam. And my kids aren’t deprived because of it. Not even close.

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