Eating Out at Restaurants: Advice for Host Families and Au Pairs

by cv harquail on November 11, 2010

Our rocking, sane and helpful conversation about all things related to food at home has emboldened me (and maybe you) to tackle a specific food situation– eating out at restaurants.

I’m thinking about the evenings when no one has the energy to cook and you’re tired of pizza, or when you’re dining ‘on the road’ or on vacation, or when Grandma wants to treat on a weeknight.

(I am not talking about taking your au pair our to dinner as a special treat or celebration for the au pair.)

Meals out at restaurants can be awkward situations for Au Pairs if they don’t know what the cost and volume conventions are in your family.

They may be very conscious, or blithely unaware, but either way, you need to set the stage so that your au pair knows what to do.  Even when an au pair can translate and recognize items on the menu, it can be easy for him or her to trip over an unspoken expectation about what your family usually orders, and what your family usually spends, in a restaurant.

Does your family always order a side salad, no matter how much it costs, to make sure everyone gets a vegetable? Do you share a Bloomin’ Onion family style or each get your own appetizer? Or, do you skip desserts almost always to save money and calories?

201011111608.jpgFor Host Families, the restaurant situation can be sensitive, once again because it’s easy to see (and be surprised by) how much having an additional adult (your au pair) can add to your out-of-pocket costs. (I’m still getting adjusted to my 12 year old shifting off of the kids’ menu. Buying chicken in non-nugget form is a good bit more expensive, I’m discovering.)

You can also find yourself resenting the au pair who orders a first course, a second course, a dessert, and a fancy mixed drink, while you’re having the Caesar salad without chicken. Without fries. Without dessert.

There is one really significant rule for host parents when it comes to taking au pairs to a restaurant:

Only take an au pair to a restaurant where you can afford to buy him or her a full-sized entree and a non-alcoholic beverage.

If you can’t afford to have your au pair choose the second most expensive item on the menu, think again about the restaurant you’re going to. It’s probably better to economize with a less fancy atmosphere but more flexibility on what can be ordered (e.g., maybe a Red Robin instead of an Outback Steak House).

Other recommendations:

  • Tell your au pair what you expect to order yourselves.

She will probably use that as a guideline for ordering her own meal.

“I’ll probably get the roasted veggie panini ($8.99) with a side of haricot vert ($3.99) and DH will probably order the chicken-fried steak ($17.99) because he works out 6 days a week and can actually metabolize that.”

This gives your au pair a hint– target cost of each adult’s meal will be between $13 and $18. The $29 New York Strip is probably out of bounds, but restricting his or her order to the chicken satay appetizer ($4.99) is probably unnecessary.

  • Tell your au pair directly what he might want to order, in terms of courses and extras.

He’ll take the lead if you all order appetizers, but might not know if you plan to skip straight to entrees.

“We’ll get a Bloomin’ Onion to share, but since that only really serves two, why don’t you pick out an appetizer that looks good to you?” or “If five of us share a Bloomin’ Onion, we all get a taste and still have room for those ribs. Mmm.”

  • Before you actually go out to a restaurant, tell your au pair what to expect.

You want to make sure that he or she doesn’t hold back and order too little, or choose something s/he really won’t like, all to save a few bucks when that is not necessary.

We explicitly state in our family handbook that we will never take our au pair to a restaurant that we can’t afford, unless we are in some weird travel situation where we apply the F.H.B. dictum to keep the cost reasonable.

Talk about restaurants and expectations before you actually go out for a meal, so it doesn’t look like you were attacked by the stingies when your au pair orders the lobster tail and you recoil in horror.

  • Be ready to hold back yourself, if necessary, to make constraints seem somewhat fair.

clara pepi.jpgWe sometimes have problems with wine when we dine out. DH loves a nice Cabernet, and would prefer a $35 bottle of wine to a $20 bottle if he could get away with it. But if he’s unwilling to share it freely with our au pair (if she is not driving, is old enough to drink, and likes wine), then he has to order something less expensive. It just seems too mean for him to drink a fine vintage if she’s only allowed to have a glass of ‘house wine’, the kind from the cardboard box that they pour behind the bar.

Remember that eating out — regardless of where– can still feel like a special treat for the whole family.

Other restaurant tips and stories? Please share!

See also:

Why is managing food for an Au Pair so hard?
Food and your Au Pair: A smorgasbord of advice


Nina November 11, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I think definitely telling your au pair up to how much they can spend is not a bad thing. I really wish my host families did, in the end I always got the pasta cabonara because it was pretty much the cheapest thing on the menu and full of carbs to fill me up and I always felt kind of embarrassed when ordering in case I was buying something too expensive. It was a case sometimes they told me not to look at the steaks (not just me, but anyone dining with us) because they are too expensive, then another week get everyone (including myself) a 40€ meal.

used to be an AP November 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

I always found going to restaurants with my HF very uncomfortable. They were very nice and generous and would probably have paid for anything I liked (they also had the means to do that, I know that not everyone is in that situation), but I always felt that I had to get the cheapest option on the menu and I always ordered something that was less than 12 dollars. (In fact I now always order something for less than 12 euros when I eat at a restaurant, regardless of whether I or my boyfriend pay for the food.) As a drink I always ordered diet coke or water (the kind that you get for free). So, if you are planning on taking your AP to a restaurant, make sure that you tell her beforehand what your expectations are, otherwise s/he won’t be able to enjoy it.

Europhile November 11, 2010 at 7:15 pm

This can be a tricky subject. Generally, the AP should take the cues of the family, and stay within those limits. I don’t think APs must order the cheapest meal, but they definitely should not order the most expensive (it’s considered rude).

We still don’t eat out a whole lot yet, because the kids are young and it’s not that relaxing. Our AP is new to many of the foods she is exposed to here (Thai, Vietnamese, sushi, etc.), so we often order for the table and let her taste everything, in order for her to find out what she likes or doesn’t and then she can order herself next time.

I’d say if you go to a place where you don’t want the AP to partake in the wine, and the food selection is on the pricey side, etc. you’re probably better off not taking her with you in the first place. It’s reasonable to have a family meal out without the AP once in a while.

My 2 cents November 11, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I agree with all the above. We’ve had au pairs who have done polar opposites — one order three courses, and another order a water and a side salad — either way I think modeling behavior and “suggesting” items or talking about what everyone else plans to order is probably the best way to tackle it and make clear to the au pair what is reasonable, but at the same time not to feel guilty at all about eating a full, adult meal. We want you to enjoy the meal with us and for no one to feel awkward about anything!

Gianna November 11, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I enjoy eating out a lot with my kids although my huband thinks it a luxury to do so often. We resolved this by deceiding that eating out is part of our food budget.
In order to enjoy this activity, I told my own children as soon as they graduated from the kids menu that we should all pick something within a given price range. I feel very comfortable telling aupairs this, too, before we go to the restaurant. This practice also
upsets my husband so he lets me be the bad guy. I have never had a problem in terms of anyone overdoing it. I’ve never even had a problem with my children’s friends whom we like to invite along , too , sometimes. This could be good luck. I also have an aunt in Florida with whom I visit via the telephone every Sunday night for about an hour. It would cost us more to go out to dinner and have a nice bottle of wine. I do not want to give up eating out so I am willing to bite the bullet and set some ground rules. I think it is good to put it in the handbook and say …We enjoy this and in order to be able to continue we have some boundaries.

anon November 11, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Sorry, a bit off topic, but I’m so curious I have to ask. I don’t get the aunt in Florida point…? How does this relate to eating out/budgets for eating out?

MinneMom November 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Yeah I was wondering the same thing! Very peculiar that sentence would be nudged in there …

azmom November 12, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I think she’s saying that she makes choices/sacrifices. She’d rather visit with her aunt on the phone than have a nice dinner out? (use google voice – cheaper than skype for those who don’t have a computer to call to!)

Gianna November 14, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Yes, AZmom is right. Lots of things that seem extravagant or easy to afford for one person represent a choice and a sacrifice worth making to someone else.

AP2B November 12, 2010 at 3:13 am

I feel very uncomfortable with ANYONE (even boyfriends or my own family) buying me dinner when going out to eat. I’m not sure if this situation will come up during my year, but do you have any suggestions on the topic of “how to avoid the awkwardness when HF wants to take everyone to a restaurant and won’t take no for an answer”?

To make things even more complicated, I will be situated in one of the most expensive countries in the whole world. Yikes. I already feel like I’m taking advantage of them (I can’t stop thinking about the sacrifices they may have to make in order to accomodate me and pay for my stiped) and I haven’t even left home yet! This is just me thinking though. They’ve never made any comments about the program being too expensive for them or anything like that, I just worry too much…

Darthastewart November 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

This is part of being an au-pair. If they offer, please do take them up on it- they will likely be disappointed otherwise (I know *I* would be). Just follow their lead, or … how about ask what’s good on the menu, or what they recommend?

Part of the fun of being an au-pair is getting to go out and explore these opportunities with your host family, and I enjoy introducing the AP to new and different things that she wouldn’t otherwise experience. (It’s very different being introduced by a local, vs. just being a tourist for a year)

ExAP November 13, 2010 at 7:22 pm

It’s always an awkward situation- I Know what you mean.
My parents taught me to just look at the cheapest and the most expensive meal and take something in between the price range.
I guess asking your HPs what they will order (maybe it’s easier to ask what they can recommend) is the best thing. You’ll see their price range and know how far you can go. :)

OnceAnAuPair November 12, 2010 at 3:41 am

With my HF I never once went to a restaurant, so I really can’t comment too much. I just think the Au Pair should take cues from the rest of the family, not order the most expensive thing and the not the cheapest either. Most restaurants in the US give you a salad with the meal most of the time anyway, so I don’t think this is really something to stress about too much for an au pair in the US. Drinks (soda, iced tea, not alcohol) are also incredibly cheap in the US too, so once again not something to really stress about. And only order alcohol if the parents do too, but not a mixed drink, that’s inappropriate. A bottle of beer or a glass of wine is acceptable, I think.

In Europe, its very different. A small can of “coca light” can be 3-5 euro. I would order just the free water in Europe, unless the family is ordering wine or if the rest of the family orders a soda.

clairetheaupair November 12, 2010 at 5:09 am

Quick tip to the au pairs:
Whenever I go out to eat with my Host Family (which is incredibly often – they, like Gianna’s family enjoy this – and often rather expensive) I always pick 2 things off the menu that I think I’ll like , and ask my Host Father advice on which he thinks I should order. Something like: “I can’t choose between the steak medallions or the gnocci; which is good here?”
Makes it very easy to make the right choice!

AnnaAuPair November 12, 2010 at 7:50 am

I agree that eating out can be uncomfortable when it comes to what to choose. My hostfamily actually did both things you suggested: they told me what they would get and then suggested what I might like. This gave me a pretty good idea of how pricey the food could be.
We would also often go to Asian restaurants, where my hostmom just ordered for everyone and we would share. That made it even easier =)

Clarabelle November 12, 2010 at 8:09 am

My first night on arrival my host family took me out for a meal, and made it very clear for me that I could order anything I wanted from the menu, since the restaurant wasn’t the fanciest in town. I really appreciated that and from that day on, I knew they wouldnt take me out to a resturant they could’nt afford! But then again, my HM was very smart :)

Btw… love the photo ;)

PA AP mom November 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm

We go out to eat for the majority of our dinners and all of our meals on weekends.

We haven’t ever had a problem with an AP (in 3 years) ordering something outlandishly expensive. Usually we talk about what we are having while waiting on the server. I think when we talk about what we are going to order, it gives the AP what is appropriate.

Last year when our AP was of age to drink alcohol, we went by the “if we are having a drink, it’s ok for her too”.

Daisy November 12, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Let me start by saying that after 4 years with an incredible nanny (who didn’t live in), we are about to embark on the au pair adventure. We have identified a lovely young woman who will be joining us soon, and we’ve enjoyed communicating with her via email and Skype to get to know each other before she arrives.

I tee this up so you all know that my “advice” is based on no real firsthand au pair experiences as yet. I have, however, taken the development of a family handbook very seriously (thanks to all you veterans who were willing to share your handbook templates), and I included a section on what we would pay for (e.g., groceries but not restaurants out when she is alone or with her friends).

Relative to eating out with the family, our “house rule” is that if we invite her to join us at a restaurant (or any family activity for that matter), we cover the cost. If it’s during non-work time, she can of course decline the invitation, but if she chooses to join us, we think it only fair that we pay and wanted to make that clear to her upfront. As for what she orders from the menu, we agree with previous comments about not dining at places we can’t afford…besides, if she’s not following family ordering cues and we feel like she’s taking advantage of us, there are probably bigger underlying issues.

On a related note, I also included a section in our handbook about “family time,” where I explained that we would often invite her to join us for meals or activities, but that there would also be time that we wanted to spend alone. Hopefully this makes it clear that when we invite her to join us out, we are sincere in wanting her to go and also happy to cover the cost.

Taking a Computer Lunch November 15, 2010 at 8:02 am

Now that my 10-year-old eats off the adult menu (and he’s partial to the most expensive steak his father will let him order), I think our AP should find it easy to take her cues from my husband’s dictum to my son, “You may order something that costs no more than X.” (Because the child would happily order something that cost $27 in a restaurant where most meals are $15.)

That being said, I try to cue my APs about what to order in a particular restaurant. One wouldn’t order fried chicken in a Tex Mex restaurant, but it’s often delicious in an El Salvadoran restaurant. I had a Chinese AP who hated the taste of cheese, whose English vocabulary did not clue her in to Gruyere, cheddar and Swiss, so we would tell her – “that has cheese in it” once we realized that it was an issue for her. If you’re AP’s English is weak, she may need help decoding the menu and be likely to order those items for which she recognizes the words.

Mumsy November 15, 2010 at 1:12 pm

AP#5 (who was not with us for very long) got really weird when I bought her an ice-cream at the local ice-cream shop and she said she did not want me spending my money on her. I thought that was weird considering the thousands of dollars HD and I had forked out to the agency and were getting ready to spend on hosting her. Also, she had no problem eating ALL the ice-cream, cookies, chips, etc. in our house. Maybe she felt she was entitled to the food when eaten in the home but not entitled to it when eaten at a restaurant? I still struggle to figure it out.

EuroGirl November 16, 2010 at 8:11 am

I ate out in restaurants several times with families I worked for, and found it awkward as there are no ground rules for what to order. I usually made it my policy to order something a little more than the kids (all the kids I looked after were under age 7) and a little less than the parents/other adults. Living and working in Europe, going out to eat is a part of family life and something that you could never avoid when living with a family.

With regards to drinks, I was 19-22 when I was working as an au pair and it would have been considered a bit odd if I didn’t have a glass of wine or beer with dinner. (I know it’s different in the US) But I always made it the rule to limit myself to one drink if someone else is paying, or to ask for a coffee instead which is a little cheaper.

My host families were always very generous but one family were vegetarians and I felt difficult because I could not order meat – even the cheapest meat dish is more expensive than a vegetarian dish – and since I don’t eat dairy products…it was often hard to find something on the menu that was both the right price and that I could eat! Has anyone else had problems with diets like this?

Calif Mom November 17, 2010 at 11:35 am

We love food more than we have time for it. So we occasionally go out to eat on Desperation Thursday nights, and often on the weekend when we are running around on errands. Our past au pairs have not always joined us for dinners at the house, which made this issue a lot easier to manage from the cost perspective. We usually end up bringing leftovers home, which past au pairs have been delighted to have for lunch the next day. It always seemed to work out. Yes, past au pairs joined us from time to time, and were always welcome and they always ordered a modest and enjoyable meal, without feeling deprived. And on trips, we all ate together. No problems.

We have also had an au pair who ate every single meal with us, even on weekends. She also just plain ate a lot, and commented about our family’s impressive portion control (yes, even while making blanket statements about Americans’ obesity and eating habits, which drives me crazy. The comments about obese people are a bit hypocritical given your personal experience since coming to the states, no? Yes, we sometimes hit Mickey D’s on Saturdays on the way to dance class if someone decides they’re starving after we’re already packed into the car, but the contributions of Mickey D’s to our societal ills is really married with poverty and food deserts, so enough with the stereotypes about “the American diet” already! You learned more about vegetables and whole grains since joining our family than all your years in…..oh. Sorry. Rant came up out of nowhere there. Thanks for listening.)

Anyway, the sheer volume of food and the frequency of adding an extra person to these restaurant excursions that we experienced meant we would find ourselves “holding back” a lot more often than we wanted to, and honestly, it also led to feelings of deprivation. In the past DH and I would order wine or a cocktail, but then held back because if I order a glass, I couldn’t really say no to our au pair, who enjoyed boozy beverages a lot and, being young and on a limited income, well, who wouldn’t want to order drinks on someone else’s tab? I empathize. HD sometimes has that glass anyway, as a management tool for being around all that siblingness all weekend, but I’ve discovered that the minute I also indulge, the au pair would take that as a signal that she was entitled to one, too. (Again, I would be less torqued by this if she ordered cheap drinks. I mean, who orders a cocktail at a brew pub?) Call me a prude, but I don’t really like the idea of habitually buying APs cocktails in front of our girls. Celebration meals, okay. Desperation Thursdays? Not so much.

I realize this makes us sound like petty cheapskates, but I assure you our grocery bill belies that! The au pair who ate a lot also was a lot less conscientious about ordering pasta carbonara than the au pairs who commented earlier in the string. She consistently picked entrees that cost more than mine. I end up sharing my dish with a kid 99 percent of the time (which is okay with me, but as the most flexible eater in the family I often bat clean up; we have never done the “kids’ meal” thing, because I want our kids to eat real food, and because they can’t really eat that big of a serving anyway. Even at 11 years old, my big kid and I share most entrees and have plenty of food.)

At places where the portions are human-sized, we will get a side salad or veggie of some sort, but that’s always to share between parents and/or kids, depending on whose entree will contain other vegetables. Our au pair, however, would then take that as a signal that “we’re ordering appetizers” and add on a platter of nachos. It’s very hard to say no, because while we’re footing the bill, she’s not really one of the kids, and her nutrition and weight are her own concern. It’s a nuanced situation, as has been pointed out.

But we have found an approach that works! First, we are really reducing the number of dinners out, which makes the additional cost when we do go out easier to swallow. (pun, I know, sorry.)

Second part of our strategy–and this may not work well with more independent au pairs–is that Dad orders the meal. It feels very retro and may offend the feminists among us at some level (myself included), but it works for us because I also have memory problems and after the negotiations to determine which parts of whose plate will be shared with the kid who can’t eat cheese vs the kid who loves it, etc, well, I can’t remember our final decisions by the time the server arrives. So it makes sense for Dad, who can hold things in his head, to also hold the reins on ordering food.

I also suggest restaurants where ordering family style in a must, *especially the first few times you go out with a new au pair*. Then it’s easy to establish this norm of one of the parents to order “for the table” and the au pair gets used to sharing. This tactic works best with Asian food, of course, but all our au pairs have been able to find dishes they really enjoy, even if they’ve never really had Thai, Indian, or Chinese food before. Just be sure to order something simple like chicken and veggies as one of the dishes.

And in the long run, eating out less often and ordering fewer drinks is a good thing for all of us, right? My next goal is to teach the AP to get dinner started before I come home, and learn how to prep the bread that’s rising and get it into the oven, now that the days are cooler, so I don’t have to stay up until midnight waiting for it to finish. Back to menu planning in earnest. The seasons have truly shifted, haven’t they?

Honeygirl July 8, 2011 at 4:46 pm

We rarely go out to eat as it’s too hard with 3 kids under 5. But the few times that we have gone out, it has only been to places we can afford, even if the most expensive item is ordered. Plus, we only take our AP out to lunch/dinner and time it during her work hours. My policy is NO DRINKING when working. No exceptions. That said, we can be assured that she will only order non alcoholic beverages with us. She is 24 years old German AP. We tend to stick to family style, chain restaurants (Apple Bees, Chilis, Pizza, Bucca di Beppo, Unos), because they offer the kids eat free days, and I get coupons for free appetizers by email.

The few times our AP has come with us to non chain restaurants (special occasions for family member’s birthday), and she has been off duty, she has ordered almost the most expensive item on the menu, and then only ate half! I was raised to at least try and finish your plate, or take it home. I come from a large family and food didn’t get wasted at all in our house. Instead she threw her napkin on her half eaten plate and told the server that she was done. Everyone stared at her. Now when we go out, I ask her if she wants to share a meal, and she or I can choose the meal since we cannot both cannot finish a whole meal anyway. I would rather have that than waste.

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