Dining out with Kids in Restaurants (non-chain, non family)
or, Tales of Training a
Future Restaurant Critic
Accidental Hedonist's recent post brought this hot topic to the forefront once again. Here are my 2 cents...
We take our son (a five-year-old restaurant critic-in-training) everywhere, except the very top tier restaurants (such as 2- and 3-star Michelin, for example). The main reason the top tier is avoided is the patience that is required to get through very long dinners. The other factor at top tier restaurants is cost. For the under 8, $80 Chef's tasting menus are cost prohibitive. The longest dinner we've managed with our seasoned five-year-old was just under 3 hours (with 8 courses) when we were on a trip. The chef made a small tasting menu (the same as ours, just smaller portions) for him at a slightly reduced price. Dinner at a fine restaurant becomes easier, as kids who are used to eating in real restaurants, become more patient.
Instruction One to parents of little diners:Take your kids out. The more they go out, the more comfortable they will be and the quicker they will learn what is expected, how to behave, etc.
It may be challenging in the beginning. Start with bistro and casual style restaurants with younger kids. Local, casual restaurants and ethnic food restaurants, are usually good places to start. That doesn't mean chain restaurants – we never recommend chain restaurants.
One of the smartest things we did was to take our son (when he was little) to our favorite Japanese restaurant. He acquired a taste for salty and sour, and probably umami. He learned to enjoy flavors from foods like miso, tofu, edamame, pickled vegetables, soy, green tea, and many varieties of cooked and raw seafood. This vastly expands kids horizons and opens up possible menu choices at better restaurants, such as tempura, carpaccio, crudo, and seafood. Sure, not all kids are going to eat tofu. Maybe we were lucky. Just don't lower your eating standards for your kids. Dine where you would actually enjoy eating and take them, too. Try fancier restaurants for lunch, when you can. When on a trip or vacation, have your main meal at lunch and lighter fare for dinner. (We don't understand why parents take their kids to dine at places where the parents don't even like the food...that's so backward! - Jack)
Don't be Disillusioned - be Realistic: Dining out with kids will cost you pride points and you'll have to be well prepared. In the old days (when our son was 1-4), I had a purse of tricks to keep our son busy. This bag of tricks contained multiple noiseless toys, games, books, etc. Now, at a restaurant, we play verbal story games, play small games, do mazes and/or workbooks. Keep in mind that you will have to pay attention to your young child and keep them busy; it is random as to when they will entertain themselves. It will be work. Bring coloring materials that won't stain tablecloths and toys which are quiet and not messy. (Some suggestions at right.)
Also realize that although meals at home may be mostly organic, wholesome, and made with the best ingredients, restaurant food is not usually such. For example, organic milk and juice is not likely to be offered. Try to pick good restaurants and don't stress out on the menu. You will encounter the waiters (or stewardesses for that matter) who think that children should remain at home. Try to ignore bad attitudes. If you are grumpy, your kids will be too. Trust in yourself and your kids.
Ordering For Kids: First off, consider not having your child eat their main course while you have your appetizer. If the child's main course comes immediately it will satiate their hunger but it may also make your dining experience exceedingly challenging. In my experience what results is that you try and entertain them while eating your main course when they've mentally 'left the building'. Also consider that many waiters will order whatever the kids are having to come up first (even if you don't specify)- so be *very clear* as to the order in which you wish dishes to appear. Do try and get some sort of food on the table when appetizers are delivered which will not fill them up (ie. bread is not a great choice) and will appease the little appetite until dinner is served. Alternatively for inexperienced diners or very little diners, consider skipping appetizers altogether until they become used to the restaurant process, or more patient in general. Alas, patience does come with age.
Restaurant children's menus are really a portion issue - some great restaurants are happy to make smaller portions of regular menu items. Others will not stoop to cater to little ones. Still others offer the dreaded chicken finger/pizza/ mac'n cheese menus (or worse). IMHO, it's okay if the price of dining out with kids in a nice restaurant, is an entree or appetizer that they are unlikely to finish. Most restaurants are happy to package up the remainder to go. Our son will eat many things, so menus don't usually challenge him unless the food is very heavily seasoned or spicy (as he is unaccustomed to very spicy food). If your kids will eat soup and bread it can often can get you through a sticky dining situation, even at ethnic restaurants, or in foreign countries. On a recent foray, a kid's chef tasting menu was offered and I was disappointed to see pizza and ice cream as two of the five courses. Our son ordered the tomato soup at that restaurant. In fact soup and bread may be a great choice on some menus.
(Try to find something on the regular menu first, rather than the kid's menu. Some kid's menu food is super bland or completely mediocre, compared to what the adults get. I don't understand restaurants where the adults are dining well and the kids are served mini hockey pucks? - Jack)
If your children are at a difficult age of eating, make sure before you go that there is something of interest on the menu - and that your kids aren't starving before you leave. Most chefs will customize food without sauce or switch vegetables. If your kids will eat nothing but pasta, make sure that pasta is on the menu. If you kids are hungry when they walk into the restaurant they are likely to be more picky - and more cranky. If you know you are going out have a snack an hour or so before heading to the restaurant so they aren't starving when they arrive. Restaurants are great places to expand food horizons. Encourage your kids to be adventurous. I've found that children who are in a good mood are likely to try new things. I'm still amazed at what "amuses" Trent has consumed. And then, he's eating such delicacies as shrimp eyeballs.
On Fries: Potatoes in the form of French fries (crisps, frites, chips, etc.) seem to be almost unavoidable in even the upper tier restaurants. We have trouble keeping them from being the main course as they are most definitely a treat. This is a great opportunity to teach the valuable lesson of moderation. If you are on holiday or vacation, having potatoes as the main course can end up as a problem, so we try to keep them out of the order completely. If it’s a more local dinner or lunch – or others at the table have them, order an empty plate and parcel out small amounts to go with the rest of the entrée ordered. Or order them on a separate plate and have the whole table share. If you have to order frites as a side dish ask the waiter to bring them after the entrée, or order them as dessert. Fries are virtually the equivalent of ordering PHO (the cooking oil) with a side of HFCS (aka ketchup).
The Bad: If a kid begins (or threatens) to melt down or screams, this (obviously) is time to leave. Proper restaurant behavior generally means quiet, indoor voices and sitting at the table. Sometimes it's just the energy level of the child that is the trouble. The child needs to run, vocalize loudly or move around. Other times, it's a tired child that starts to melt down. If problems begin mid-meal, go outside, if possible, and cool the child off and then return. If near the end of dinner the child gets antsy, or difficult, then get the check and go – if two parents are dining, one goes outside with the child and the other pays. The goal is to not disturb other diners and to make sure that your child understands the proper restaurant behavior. Don't give up. Even after a disaster, try again. Make sure your little diner knows the proper behavior standards before you get to the restaurant. We've had both poor experiences with our son and marvelous ones. Dwell on the good.
Note to Parents of Little Diners: If you aren't comfortable taking your kids to a restaurant, they will respond to that uneasiness. Trust your instincts. You know whether your child can make it through a white table-clothed, quiet evening or not. Don't try to take on top-tier restaurants until you've practiced dining out quite a bit.
I still remember a time when Trent was 2 and we decided, at the end of a long trip, to book dinner at a top restaurant. The dining room was austere and funeral-home-quiet. The tablecloths were pooling on the floor and our tired, cranky child was much more interested in exploring under the table than eating the appetizer that we had ordered for him. After three not-so-subtle attempts to get us to "move to a more comfortable bar table", we finally did. It was embarrassing, but we learned a lesson and better yet, we learned our limits. The impossible with a small child, is making them sit still, be quiet (or whisper) and be tired all at the same time. When making travel arrangements to a city with the 2 and under child, I made sure that the hotel which we stayed had room service that met our requirements (or that we were near smaller more casual restaurants nearby). In the early days, success at eating out is all about planning.
Treats and *gasp* Bribes
When traveling, I've resorted to the latter to make it through a meal - within reason. We don't usually eat dessert so dessert may be a treat that is for restaurants only (our son has a penchant for sorbet, currently). Special toys or tricks that come out only at restaurants are treats, and set the stage for a more festive outing. A special drink to accompany the meal (although not HFCS soda), can be a feature. We always ask for the non-soda, non-alcoholic choice from the waiter. If you know that the restaurant only has water, soda and wine, and water won't do, consider bringing a drink with you - that too could be special. Most restaurants will happily supply a clean glass.
Make it fun. Make it an Event. You are unlikely to eat out every night, so make going out an event. Dining out should be an adventure - a wonderful one. Dressing for the event sometimes helps to set the tone. My son has a dinner jacket and dress pants reserved for special outings (actually wearing the belt is the important part of the outfit to him). Restaurants and chefs work hard to provide a wonderful dining experience. Using the glamor of it, with your little diner, may make it a magical experience overall.
What time: It goes without saying that parents with children should be seated within the first hour of opening (something we and most parents adhere to).
The Rant: Don't tell me not to bring my child to a restaurant. Children should be treated with the same respect as adults. If I want to take my 5-year-old to a Michelin 3-star, then it's my responsibility to make sure that his behavior is in keeping with the atmosphere. I don't expect a children's menu at a top tier restaurant, but I do hope that a smaller portion will be offered. I expect the same care should be taken on choosing non-alcoholic drinks as was taken with the wine list.
Jack adds: To Chefs and Restaurateurs: 1. Make your Children's Menu interesting, not generic. 2. Please offer beverages (and catsup) which don't contain high fructose corn syrup, and fried food which is trans-fat free. 3. For top restaurants, it would be great if one day a week (or month) was designated as "family day". 4. Train your waitstaff that tables with young children need their orders taken promptly and their food delivered more quickly. Children only have so much patience.
Some time-tested Tricks for the Table
We've tested many things over time with our son. Imagination is of course the best toy. Often turning to more tangible things makes for a more easy going dining experience. These are currently things which I can recommend to keep little hands and minds busy at restaurants.