Our restaurant bucket list adds up to hundreds of places we’d like to try in our city. There’s everything from dim sum to jerk chicken, tacos to falafel to crinkle cut fries. We’ve bookmarked candy shops, fried chicken joints, shish kebabs, pizza, burgers, bakeries, and brunch. The vast expanse of gastronomic opportunities is one of the best parts of city life!
Then the kids came along. When we first became parents, we didn’t know if it was possible to continue having great dining experiences or to share those experiences with our children since mealtime doesn’t look the same as it used to. Late-night dinners, spur-of-the-moment weekday meals, and long, leisurely brunches don’t happen as often. But taking advantage of the cultural experiences our city offers through food is one of our greatest joys, and something we’d like to pass along to our children.
We’re committed to taking the kids with us to as many restaurants as we can, and hope it will result in well-rounded and adventurous humans who are open to embracing new experiences and cultures. So far, it’s working.
Lest you think we have some magic fairy dust to sprinkle on the high chair before plunking down a toddler, please know that we’ve made it work only with our fair share of pleading, prayers, bribery, trial, and error. Plenty of error. And more than one plot twist that resulted in a frantic plea to the service staff: Actually, we’ve got to leave—NOW—so can you box our order instead? Please, thank you, and I’m so sorry. We can’t promise that it’s an easy task to eat out with kids, but we can tell you it’s worth it in the long run!
If your child has grown up eating out, it will feel less like a new experience and more like a normal part of life. They’ll be accustomed to the noise levels, familiar with the expectations, and everyone will feel more at ease. Start taking your kids to restaurants when they’re young; if you’re lucky they’ll sleep through the whole meal!
A 9 o’clock dinner of wood-fired pizza and wine holds a charm of its own, but not if bedtime comes at 7:30. Dining a little earlier feels like a let-down at first, but trust us on this. After you’re shown to a table right away, find a server poised and ready with a high chair and drinks, and caught sight of two other families with the same eat early idea, then we’ll ask how you feel about an early dinner.
If you ask us, steaming hot bao at 5pm in Chinatown is better than cold takeout noodles on your couch at 9.
Request something quick and simple for the kids right away like chips and guacamole or fries or bread. And by right away we mean right away—even before you’ve decided between cerveza or tequila. Just tell your waiter it’s for the kids and see if they can bring it out quickly. We promise they won’t think you’re a jerk; they get it.
Eating out with kids (especially younger ones) isn’t the best time to deliberate about your order. If it’s a new restaurant that you’re particularly excited about, take a look at the menu beforehand to get an idea for what sounds good. If you’re dining with a group and they’re lagging, just order as soon you’re ready. There’s not much worse than going to all the effort of sitting down at a table, getting situated with crayons and high chairs and lidded cups only to reach your limit and have to ask for your food to be boxed to go.
Take some snacks with you, just in case. It’s not hard to toss a bag of goldfish or dried fruit in the stroller or your bag, and it just might divert a hangry meltdown. You’ll be patting your past self on the back for such savvy forethought.
Notice a theme here? Early, early, early. It’s less sexy than a late night dive bar, but more sexy than takeout on the couch.
Ask for modifications
Just because a restaurant doesn’t have a kids menu doesn’t mean they can’t accommodate kids. We’ve encountered the most creative and thoughtful dishes for the kids from a waiter’s personal recommendation.
If there’s no children’s menu in sight, we scan the á la carte section for something that might work or make a request for grilled cheese, buttered pasta, plain noodles, chicken dumplings, a quesadilla, or even PB&J. Asking for recommendations is the best choice though; most restaurants have taken growing palates into consideration (whether or not they’ve printed a kids menu) and will have something to offer.
As your kids grow, they’ll likely become more adventurous about trying new foods, especially if they see you doing the same. With practice you’ll be able to gauge when moods are up, and you might be surprised by what your kids will try! There’s undeniable magic in beautiful food plated by a professional chef—the beauty isn’t lost on your kids.
Involve the whole family in the process of picking a place to have dinner and take suggestions from everyone for your own family’s bucket list.
No food shame
We have a strict rule about no food shaming or guilt-tripping when we’re eating out with our kids—or without them. While it’s fun to find a new favorite food, a restaurant isn’t the best place to pick a fight when it comes to cleaning your plate or trying ahi tuna for the first time. We encourage tasting everything and take the family-style approach by splitting dishes and passing plates around the table so everyone can have a taste.
When you do offer something new to your kids, take the pressure off by also ordering something you know they already like. Give them their first sushi roll alongside bowl of fried rice or steamed edamame—seeing something familiar will ease their mind about trying something new!
Support the other families
Eating out doesn’t have to break the bank even though you have a few extra mouths to feed. For every top-rated restaurant in your city, there’s a family-owned spot that makes food that’s just as tasty and exciting without the fanfare (or the price tag). We can bus to the next neighborhood and have the best fried plaintains and jibaritos we’ve ever tasted with some of the most attentive service anywhere in the city. It takes some research to find these places, but it’s so worth it! Family-run restaurants love serving other families, and we love using our dollars to support small businesses. Win-win.
We have a set of magnetic blocks and a few toy cars that always live in the going out bag. They’re reserved for special occasions like restuarants or waiting at the doctor’s office so they feel new and exciting. It’s amazing how a little creativity can go a long way with just a few toys! We’ve been known to make tiny balls of paper napkin to be carried around the construction site—I mean table—in a dump truck.
Adrienne of @brunchingwithkids calls this mastering the art of distraction. She recommends things like having the kids keep watch for the waiter bringing the food and asking to be seated outdoors whenever possible. She’s even admitted to using her last resort: giving a half empty cup of water to the toddler for play. We’re so glad to know we’re not the only ones with that trick up our sleeve!
As much as we’d like to say we don’t ever resort to screens at brunch, it’s simply not true. Sometimes nothing else works and we pull out Peppa Pig or the favorite shape sorting app while we wait for our Belgian waffles and avocado toast. Screen time is limited to special occasions in our family, so it’s the perfect magic bullet in our bag of tricks.
Seek out family friendly spots
Knowing which places in your city are family friendly is the golden ticket to a successful restaurant experience with your kids. There is a such thing as boundaries—it might not be the best choice to show up at a 3-star Michelin restaurant with a very vocal 2-year-old who has a tough time sitting still for longer than twenty minutes. Chose wisely and do your research in advance if you can.
Wait for it…
As your family grows up, you’ll reach a sweet spot when it comes to eating out together. Gone are the days of adjusting the high chair and peering at the toddler for any sign of an impending meltdown. You won’t need to bring your own snacks because the time spent waiting for your food will be filled with lucid and intelligent conversation. This is it—you’ve arrived at the sweet spot of dining with your family.
We caught a glimpse of the sweet spot just before our second child was born and sometimes we spot those families dining with older kids who know how to keep a napkin from falling to the floor or disappearing altogether. It seems like a faraway dream, but take heart! It happens to everyone.
Eating out with kids doesn’t have to be limited to Chipotle and Chick-fil-a (although we love both). Enjoying some of the best meals your city has to offer with kids in tow is a real possibility! We’re not advocating that you take your kids to every single dining experience, but you don’t always have to leave them at home. A grilled cheese sandwich is cheaper than a babysitter, after all.
Some of our most memorable family conversations and cherished experiences happen around the table, often sharing a delicious meal from one of our favorite restaurants. It’s not always fancy—in fact, it rarely is—but we’re always glad for the shared experience.