Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
I have a running theory that you can judge the worth of a cafeteria-style American restaurant by the degree to which it manages to be monochrome. "Go for beige," I told my daughter. "If you just have to have some color, make sure that it's faded. You want army green, not spring green." It was her 12th birthday, and she'd asked to go to Luby's for dinner. I was a bit bemused by the request, but went with it. It was her birthday, after all.
To a certain extent, I can understand where she was coming from. To a kid, Luby's must seem like a phantasmagorical wonderland in which (nearly) everything is fried, you get to have your pick of seemingly boundless options, and dessert comes right alongside your dinner. Shangri-La, pretty much. The freedom of choice is powerful. The freedom to go ahead and grab a tub of banana pudding along with your CFS even more so.
We showed up for dinner around 6:30 on a Tuesday night. I almost convinced the kiddo to push her birthday celebration back a day, to take advantage of "Kids Eat Free Wednesdays," but the powerful pull of BIRTHDAY won out. At that hour, we had the dining room mostly to ourselves, which is pretty much perfect for DEFCON Dining. The fewer people in the dining room, the fewer people to scowl at you when the baby decides now is the perfect time to practice his Wookie impression.
Of course, most Luby's tend to be sprawling affairs, so it's not usually difficult to put some distance between you and your fellow diners. Given the...enthusiastic nature of a bunch of cousins celebrating a birthday, we chose a table (well, three of them, really) in the far corner of the place, just in case. We sent the kids through the line in waves, splitting up parental oversight to keep things under control. Ratios are important, lest you find yourself at the cashier stand attempting to balance a tray in each hand while debating how flat the top of your head is. Fortunately, Luby's is used to this juggling act, and the staff is more than willing to carry a tray or five to your table for you.
Cecilia, the birthday girl, is excited any time the words "mashed potatoes" and "gravy" appear in close proximity, so for her it was more a matter of picking which entrée to employ as a side. I guided her toward the fried end of the line, a rule of thumb I keep handy for cafeteria-style restaurants. Fried, smothered, loafed (loaved?) are all good things to look for when picking food that's held under a heat lamp for an extended period of time. The smothering/battering/slathering acts as a heat shield of sorts. I hear Luby's was in talks with NASA about a new edible nose-cone for the shuttle program before its demise.
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I think the phrase "when in Rome" applies pretty well to eating with a large group of kids at Luby's. What I mean by this is pretty simple. They've likely returned to the table with some form of sugared food sitting right next to their faded, bacon-laced green beans. Perhaps a jiggly and alarmingly green bowl of Jell-O, perhaps some weeping banana pudding. Let them eat it first, if they choose. Better yet, shove all the kids to one end of the table and (mostly) ignore them.
I find that kids want to rise to the occasion, and if you treat them as if they are capable of comporting themselves reasonably, they might just do it. Given their own autonomous dining sovereignty, they will establish rules of order. They might get a bit louder than you, but they probably won't fling potatoes. Probably. Mine didn't. They did spend the entire time half diving across the table to sample each other's food, making a post-buffet buffet all their own. Opinions seemed to focus on the fried foods and anything with gravy. The only vegetables that disappeared completely were the green beans. The banana pudding proved a disappointment. Luby's, however, did not. The only problem with that is that it's the kids' new favorite place. They'll just have to wait for Wednesdays.