Does it feel like you and your children eat out more than your family did when you were growing up?
That’s not just a hunch. Three years ago, the amount of money a family spends on meals outside the house – burgers on a busy night, Sunday breakfast at a nearby café – began to exceed the amount of money spent on weekly groceries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What does that look like in our wallets? The USDA breaks down the average food dollar into the cents spent on everything from the transportation (3.5 cents), packaging (2.5 cents), energy (4 cents) and other items needed to produce our meals and found that the average American spends 34 cents, the highest amount, of every food dollar eating out.
As incomes rise, eating out is likely to continue —and families will continue to be an important consumer on the restaurant scene. Six out of 10 diners consider a restaurant’s family friendliness when choosing an establishment, reports the National Restaurant Association, which provides its members with helpful tips for attracting parents and children.
This is no surprise to Charissa Costa Bauhaus, director of marketing for the sports-themed Glory Days Grill, which has 31 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. The first Glory Days opened in Virginia in 1996 when “the only sports places were bars” and they wanted to open a restaurant with moms and kids in mind.
Their game plan is simple: They know kids have a “veto vote,” in restaurant selection, Costa Bauhaus says. They offer healthy food options, like salmon, that appeal to parents and kid-friendly options like pizza. Sports are always on, but at least one of the TVs in a Glory Days restaurant will be showing cartoons. Likewise, there is always an arcade style game for kids to get up and play.
And they have this drink called the Shark Attack, which is essentially a Shirley Temple, except the grenadine is inside a plastic shark that rests in the bottom of a cup of Sprite. Kids can shake up the shark and the grenadine spills out “like blood in the water,” Costa Bauhaus says. Even better, they can keep the shark.
The chain also took a proactive approach to allergens and special diets; they started offering a gluten free menu over 10 years ago and their website has an allergen wizard to help diners figure out what they can choose from Glory Days’ menu.
“That is not expected in a sports restaurant,” Costa Bauhaus says. “We try to be very safe, hospitable, friendly and fun.”
Families make great customers, agrees Scott Anderson, the general manager of The Greene Turtle in Hunt Valley. The first Greene Turtle opened in Ocean City in 1981, and since then, the chain has grown to 30 restaurants.
Their menu has kid pleasers like mac and cheese and the ever-popular chicken fingers, but staff there also knows that it’s important to pay attention to the restaurant’s smallest customers, says Anderson, adding that “kids like to feel special.”
One of his trade secrets is to let the parents know he sees them, too. “If I know the guests, I might walk the child around for a bit just so the parents have a moment to themselves to eat,” he says.
All of those extra efforts are worth it, agree the restauranteurs. Families are both big business and a big part of community.
Table (Manners) Talk
OK, with restaurant menus and décor catered to kids, how do today’s parents tackle table manners? With same approach a parent would take with any etiquette issue – with common sense, says Patricia Minor, founder of the Columbia-based Etiquette School of Maryland.
“Etiquette is really about a code of conduct based on treating people with consideration, honesty and respect,” Minor says.
Eating out can be great practice for large family meals, like Thanksgiving. Practice is important, because like adults, kids need reminders on what they should do for important occasions, Minor says.
Review utensils and table settings, she says. For family dinners, teach your children to offer their help, to shake hands when meeting up with their fellow dinners and to say hello clearly. They also should be generous with their “please” and “thank you,” she adds. Older children also can ask questions to show personal interest in their tablemates.
“Teach your children the value of connecting with others at the table,” she says.
After all, the food is only one reason we are at the table together.