Mama Madison: Lessons in dining out

Helping special needs children into the restaurant scene

Going out to eat with my family has not always been the perfectly pleasant experience I wished it to be, especially when the kids were little. I remember the time my four-year-old son tried to single-handedly remove a tablecloth, magician-style, from the table of the Italian restaurant. My son though was no David Copperfield. And it would have taken a lot more than a more than a little "magic" to remove the marinara sauce that ended up all over the blouse of the (fortunately) very forgiving woman sitting next to us.

My oldest, up until about age eight, was known to make a full meal of the jelly packets and creamers that graced the tables of diners like Mickey's Dairy Bar and Monty's Blue Plate.

And of course there was the time when my three-year-old asked, "Mommy, what am I eating?" as she took a Henry the VIII-sized bite out of what she'd been served at a kid-friendly restaurant. "It's so good." When I answered that it was a chicken leg, she felt the need to loudly clarify that it was, in fact, the actual leg of a former chicken. She then proceeded to cry so hard we hard we had to leave. She's been toying with vegetarianism ever since.

Things have definitely gotten easier in the restaurant-dining department since the kids have gotten older, but we still have our issues. My daughter, the fair weather vegetarian, would eat only at restaurants that start with the letter "N", end with "S" and have "OODLE" in the middle, if she had her druthers. And the oldest, an aspiring foodie who has fortunately left his condiment-eating days behind, is usually angling to dine at one of Madison's James Beard nominated spots. I always tell him the answer could be yes. As long as he's paying.

But I know, in the grand scheme of things, that my kid issues, when it comes to dining out, absolutely pale in comparison to those of parents whose kids have special needs. Many kids, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, are disturbed by changes in their routine, or anxious around noisy places. They may not be able tolerate waiting for a table or standing in line. So unfortunately, many of these families just avoid eating out at restaurants altogether.

That's why it's so wonderful that this coming Monday, March 31 from 4:30-7:30 p.m., the Culver's at 2102 West Beltline Highway will once again be hosting Community Inclusion Family Dining.

This dinnertime opportunity was born of the idea that families with special-need kids need opportunities to bring their children to eat in sensory-friendly restaurant environments. Just as importantly, the event also gives the fuller Madison-area populace the chance to learn more about the benefits of community inclusion. And perhaps best of all, a portion of the proceeds of the evening will be donated to Gio's Garden, the Middleton-based respite center that provides a place for kids with special needs to work on therapeutic goals while their families get an opportunity for a much-needed break.

Yes, the idea that my family could enjoy a meal out in support of families that desperately need and deserve one sounds like a pretty great way to spend an evening.

And my daughter promises not order the chicken.

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