Lila and Hubby recently took advantage of a long-languishing gift card for dinner and a movie. We figured we’d better use it up before it expired or we lost it or something. We intentionally chose a weekday on the theory that the theater and the restaurant might be less crowded. We were right about the theater. We were wrong about the restaurant. The biggest mystery to us was, what the heck are all these little school-age kids doing in here at 8:00 PM on a weeknight? This was all separate families; they did not seem to be coming from some big event, and they weren’t gathered there for birthdays or anything that we could tell. It seemed like this was just something these families do, nothing special or unusual about it. And sure enough, a quick look around at some statistics shows that more than half of Americans take the family out for dinner at least weekly, and that’s on top of a pretty intense fast-food habit, too.
It was not always this way. Young Lila had a pretty strict bedtime of 9:00 PM at that age. Not only that, but we just didn’t get taken to restaurants very much. I guess a big part of that was that there was very little casual dining in those days; I actually kind of hated going out because we had to wear itchy clothing, sit still, and be quiet for the entire meal, which – as you can guess – amounts to torture for a young kid.
These days, restaurants are more accommodating to young children. This can be a good thing, but there are a couple of unintended side effects that are not so great. First, there is the obvious impact on other diners who perhaps do not want their eardrums split by shrieking infants (and OMG, they really can cause some significant auditory pain).
But less obvious is the impact on things like obesity, your wallet, and believe it or not, your kids’ academic performance and overall behavior.
Restaurant meals’ contribution to obesity is pretty well-established by now, no surprise there. Restaurant portions tend to be large, calorie-intensive, full of fats and sugars. Even salads can pack half a day’s worth of calories onto one plate.
The financial aspect is well-known, too. The Simple Dollar reports that the average restaurant meal costs $12.75, compared to as little as $2.00 per person for a home-prepared meal. Considering that some of these families had three or four children, that adds up fast, even if it’s only once a week.
But I wonder how many parents think about the impact on their kids’ schedules… and sleep patterns… and in turn, on their academics and behavior. Kids age 5-12 need 10-11 hours of sleep, so my old childhood bedtime of 9:00 PM (strictly enforced!) was just about right, or even a smidge short if I was getting up at 6:30 AM. To accommodate the early bedtime, the routine was: free time after school, dinner at home around 5:30 PM, then homework, possibly one hour of TV, then bedtime. And before you say a 5:30 PM home dinner is impossible, recall that my Dad was a single working parent without any help, and wasn’t exactly the most accomplished homemaker.
How different things are today! That one hour of TV has been replaced by a constant stream of electronic stimulation; free time after school has been replaced by helicopter parents or “soccer moms” driving their kids all over to different organized activities; the family may not arrive home from the corners of the earth until well into the evening; so who wants to cook dinner? The decision to run out to the restaurant seems pretty understandable.
Understandable, but not fair. The only thing restaurant dining saves is effort. It doesn’t save money. It doesn’t save time. It doesn’t make for healthy eating. It doesn’t get your kids busy with their homework, or let them unwind with rambunctious play, or even watch a TV show. No, all of that is deferred until even later in the evening, and in the end, it makes for a later bedtime for everyone, in an already sleep-deprived nation.
No, all it does is cut in to your already overtaxed time… and your overtaxed wallet.
Restaurant dining is best limited to those rare occasions when you are far from home – like on a business trip or a vacation – and otherwise, the true special occasion. Even once a week is too often for our general health and finances.