Cleveland occupational therapists

Tips for Eating Out From Our Cleveland Occupational Therapists

Dining at a restaurant – even as a once-in-a-while treat – is a life skill that our Cleveland occupational therapists are dedicated to helping our clients master.

Eating out at a restaurant when you have a child with special needs can make you feel a bit like a zoo animal. Most people know that children have a tendency to draw attention to themselves at dining establishments. Kids are still learning the appropriate ways to interact and behave in various social settings. That doesn’t mean most people are kind or understanding about it. For a child with disabilities, it can be an even steeper climb (particularly when one has a condition like autism that may not be visually obvious to those outside looking in). One bad experience can leave some families understandably inclined to skip meal outings altogether.

But the earlier and often you address situations like this, the easier they’re going to be for your child as he or she gets older.

Important Life Skills Used While Eating Out

Some of the skills a child needs to work on to ensure a successful restaurant visit:

  • Waiting. Your child will need to wait to be seated (depending on the kind of restaurant/how busy they are), wait to order food, wait for food to arrive and wait for everyone else to finish eating before leaving.
  • Ordering. He or she will have to make a choice, communicate that choice and speak at a volume that is appropriate.
  • Sitting appropriately. Child must be able to sit upright without making inappropriate body movements and while keeping their hands down or appropriately occupied.
  • Eating/Table manners. Child needs to be able to pace their eating, use utensils, napkins, chew with their mouth closed, etc.
  • Social skills. Child should be able to engage in conversations, make comments on food choices, accept/deny requests and speak at a reasonable volume.
  • Public restroom skills. Bathroom training can be a beast in itself (so can use of public restrooms), but the ability to do this with at least some proficiency (even if aid is needed) will help make the outing a more successful one.

If your child doesn’t yet have all these skills – fear not! Everyone has to begin learning somewhere. We can help you work your way up to that point.

At Therapy & Wellness Connection, our Cleveland occupational therapists will take our therapy sessions to YOU where they’re most needed. If that means practicing dining out, that’s where we’ll be. We want the skills we’re teaching to carry over into a child’s everyday life. We can start with practice at home or in the clinic and work our way up eating out at restaurants. We can do so side-by-side with parents and caregivers too, teaching them how to ensure successful outings.

Before You Go Out to Eat

Perhaps the most important bit of advice our Cleveland occupational therapists can offer: Advance planning can make all the difference.

Although you can’t expect perfection on the first or maybe even 100th try, you can work your way there – and it starts with advance preparation that can help reduce anxiety in unfamiliar environments. Take the time to prepare for a restaurant outing by asking yourself:

  • Where are we going?
  • Is the environment going to overstimulate my child?
  • Has my child been there before?
  • How long will we have to wait to be seated?
  • What time of the day are we going?
  • Would it be helpful to have a reservation/table ready?
  • What kind of food is going to be served? (Any of my child’s favorites?)
  • Can I pre-print the menu at home (preferably with pictures)?
  • How am I preparing my child for this?

All of this can be used to help you plan for an outing.

We can help you create a social story or other visual supports, so your child knows exactly what they can expect when they walk in. Having pictures of the restaurant, using “first-then” prompts and explaining what they’ll be doing and what they can expect at every step. We can also practice these skills in several sessions before going to an actual restaurant.

Other Considerations

You may want to start your child at a restaurant where expectations are low, perhaps a fast-food restaurant where wait times are short and you may only be there for 15-to-25 minutes. Slowly work your way up to establishments like buffets and then maybe sit-down restaurants, where these skills they’re learning will need to be applied for longer stretches. (We would advise, though, against going to any restaurant at its busiest time, especially while you’re child is first developing these skills.)

As you do get closer to eating at a sit-down restaurant, consider the following:

  • Booths tend to be more comfortable for children with special needs (depending on what those needs are), especially they’re first few times.
  • Depending on your child’s triggers, quiet, dimly-lit corners or outdoors/on the patio might be a good place to start.
  • Hide the condiments. Don’t set a bad precedent by letting them dump, destroy or make a mess of condiments. Same goes for any inappropriate behaviors.
  • Come prepared with activities and snacks. This can help ease the conflict during transition times.

Even if it doesn’t go smoothly each time, refuse to allow the negative reactions or opinions of others discourage you from helping your child attain this important skill. Remember why you are doing this – so that you’re child can eventually participate in the same activities as anyone else. Our Cleveland occupational therapists will be here to help.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides occupational therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email

Additional Resources:

Tips for eating out, UF-Gainesville Center for Autism and Related Disabilities

More Blog Entries:

Akron ADHD Occupational Therapy Aids Attention, Eases Anxiety, Improves Behavior, Sept. 22, 2019, Cleveland Occupational Therapists Blog