“Value Meal” to Us Means Big Portion of Unity

"How many children's menus?" The woman at the hostess stand looked us over, sizing up our family as we assembled in the restaurant lobby.

"Just one," I said.

Even when my 12-year-old-son is eligible to order the cheaper, smaller portions off the children's' menu, he won't. It's an affront to his emerging manhood. Lately I've noticed it would be pointless anyway. Given how much he has been eating, I would have to order two or three pint-size plates of spaghetti to fill him up.

Amy — the only child ordering child's fare — snaps the menu and crayons from the hostess's hand, and we follow her to a table in the back of the restaurant.

We don't eat out much as a family. This is because we don't sell illegal drugs or rob banks for a living. With so few children eating discounted entrees, we never seem to be able to get out of a restaurant for less than $100. It's even worse when we don't eat fast food.

For this reason, it always feels to me that dinner out represents an investment in family unity. What would be the point of spending that kind of money only to ignore each other and chew mindlessly while staring blankly at a TV screen? Heck, we can do that at home.

Instead, whenever we go out to eat, my husband and I insist on developing our children's conversational skills. We figure this will come in handy when they go on dates or job interviews. At the very least, it could improve the experience of spending a lot of cash feeding them.

Interesting table talk is still a challenge. The eight-year age-gap between our eldest and youngest daughters means someone is going to be bored by whatever topic we might suggest. Whatever isn't boring is just plain inappropriate.

Being a news junkie, my husband likes to explore our children's knowledge of current events. Not a safe bet. Once we get beyond the recent National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament and the first week of Major League Baseball, most of the news of the past six months has involved Anna Nicole Smith.

Not a topic I want our fourth-grader discussing over an order of fried cheese sticks.

A year ago, Amy invented a game to play in restaurants while waiting for our food. I like her game because it involves vocabulary. She likes it because she gets to go first and take a lot of turns. In a nutshell, everyone at the table takes a turn describing one another in one word.

This game works well as a way to kill time, and it even has the potential to build self-esteem. For one thing, it takes longer than you would think to work your way around the table labeling each member of the family with an adjective. For another, we don't allow the children to use the game for passive-aggressive fun.

"Let's do Jimmy," Amy announces. One by one, we work our way around the table. (Amy created the rule that we must do this in age order — youngest to oldest. This is why she always goes first. Crafty, huh?)

"Jimmy is special," she says. Special is meaningless, but at least it's not mean.

"I'd have to say Jimmy is unique," Betsy adds. Unique and special are roughly the same, so I make her choose another word. "Fine. Creative. Whatever."

By the time we're done, we have labeled him "unique, creative, open, thoughtful and determined." Not a bad list of traits.

The game continues until, almost simultaneously with my declaration that my husband is "loyal," the food arrives. Pretty soon, we're talking about our food, the Food Network and our favorite episodes of Iron Chef America.

Eventually, Chris, our waiter, reappears to rattle off our options for dessert and coffee.

I don't even look up at him. I'm sending a text to Katie, the only family member absent from our dinner out. "I'm sorry to be so rude," I say. "We have one more child, and she just checked in with a text message, so I need to reply."

"Oh, that's nothing," Chris says, telling the saddest story about a family he served once that didn't speak or stop playing with portable gaming systems during the entire meal. "The dad and the son seemed to talk once in a while about the game they were playing, but the mom just sat there the whole time staring into space."

We're all stung by the emptiness of the scene he has described. It occurs to me that I'd rather listen to my children bicker and complain than pacify them with electronics in a restaurant. In fact, I often do. It's unpleasant and tedious, but at least they're communicating.

Not that it wasn't tempting over the years to pack a Game Boy in my purse for emergencies — say, when a restaurant kitchen ran slowly or a waiter emerged to say they were out of chicken strips.

What frazzled parent wouldn't rather enjoy a leisurely meal without the constant heckling of a small child asking, "When is the food coming? I'm hungryyyyyy." Headphones, anyone?

There's the rub. If you don't endure what seem like endless meals engaging your children in mindless chatter, you'll never get to the point when they're actually capable of contributing to the social experience.

I guess in parenting, just as in any good restaurant, you pretty much get what you pay for.

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