There’s this one magic sentence which, when my husband whispers it in my ear as he occasionally does, is practically guaranteed to have me purring with happiness and beaming with delight. It’s not what you might think.
“Let’s all go out for tea tonight.”
Why do I love those seven little words so much? Well, there’s the obvious fact that I’ve been freed from the tyranny of trying to dream up a healthy, nutritious meal which the whole clan - we have three kids - will actually eat. Honestly, a night off from that is better than, well, you can use your imagination there.
But eating out as a family also means not having to find a babysitter, and THAT means not having to ignore the Prosecco on the menu cos the babysitter costs twice the price.
And don't get me started on the stress-fest that is trying to leave three kids and a houseful of chaos in some sort of presentable state for said babysitter, such that she won’t run screaming from the building before we even set foot out of the front door. By the time I've done all that I'd rather ditch dinner altogether and just dive straight into a bottle of that Prosecco.
So for all those reasons, eating out as a family is the new date night in our house. It’s just more relaxing to chuck all the kids in the car and head for our nearest pizzeria en masse than even contemplate sneaking out for some grown-up grub without the clan in tow.
E-x-c-e-p-t… I sometimes feel that eating out with the kids has largely turned into an exercise in watching your kids consume rubbish, unimaginatively called something patronising which implies kids couldn’t possibly want to eat anything that isn’t shaped like a dinosaur or loosely linked to a Disney character.
And I'm not alone - 66% of parents say they don’t think kids’ food in restaurants is good enough, according to The Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign, which is set to expose the truth behind children’s menus in 21 of the UK’s most popular restaurant chains.
Eating out with kids should be a relatively relaxed affair. Note I said 'relatively' - I'm not an idiot. I've got three kids myself so I grasp that my languorous days of properly relaxed dining are long gone, but what stresses me out at kid-friendly restaurants isn't actually my kids. It's the appallingly limited options on menus for kids.
And what's with the crayons? I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but if any child has ever done anything with a restaurant crayon other than attempt to eat it, peel off the paper, or fire them across the table at the nearest ill-humoured diner, then they can't have been a child of mine.
I don't cook separate 'kiddified' food for my children at home, so why do so many restaurants insist on treating my children as if they can't consume anything that isn't especially adapted for an unadventurous palate? Now I get that this is a distinctly First World problem but it makes eating out as a family needlessly difficult. When my kids start pestering for the unlimited ice cream for dessert or beg to be allowed a soft drink with free refills before we've even been seated, I feel like a proper meanie for repeatedly saying 'No'. We go out for dinner to relax together, not so I can spend the whole time desperately trying to distract my kids from the food choices that seem designed to turn them into sugar-fuelled tyrants.
It’s high-time someone called for restaurants to improve children’s menus. Don't we owe it to our kids to do better than this?
Do you have a favourite place to take the kids out to eat? Where would you recommend, and where's best avoided? Come and tell us over on our Facebook page.