The Art of Fine Dining with Kids

Updated June 19, 2012
by Lisa Oppenheimer

My husband and I are pretty easy to please when it comes to food. This we learned during a trip to Paris a decade ago when, despite being in the land of coq au vin (chicken in wine), we chose jambon et fromage (ham and cheese) as our preferred local delicacy.

Still, even we of the uncomplicated palate were a little disappointed when we found ourselves with children in Chateau Country,downing burgers at the entirely un-Continental Buffalo Grill (for the record: the French don’t actually have a word for “ketchup”). The repast was dispiriting enough, but I could also hear the distant echo of those continental mamas crowing about the culinary superiority of their French bebes. Future adventures, we decided, would be less tomato more tomate.

Turns out, while the the road to family dining isn’t paved with foie gras, it doesn’t have to be tarred with chicken nuggets and fries from the nearest burger joint either. In fact it’s kind of a shame if it is. Traveling to points far off is at least in part about the local cuisine. And even kids can get in the game with a little encouragement.

Not all eateries are going to roll out the red carpet (a fondue place — fondue! — once rather snootily turned away a woman I know because she had children with her), but many can and will prepare special selections such as plain pasta in a pinch.

That’s not to say you should doll the little ones up and take them to the nearest five-star trattoria. But it is an invitation to be a bit more daring—a particularly good idea during travels when sticking to the food chain (Applebees) shortchanges the experience. Visit the little hole-in-the-wall joints, talk up the locals, and try to balance the standard-kid-fare with something new and different. We still laugh about my eldest, age10 at the time, telling her grandparents about the “divine vegetable tart” she had in France — this from a kid who previously considered chicken nuggets a foreign delicacy if they had Italian breadcrumbs.

All that said, the renaissance will require a bit of advance preparation–at the very least a penn and piece of paper to play hangman. (Rome, after all, will definitely not be built in a day). A few other morsels:

Never arrive hungry: Famished children are notoriously miserable children and Murphy’s Law dictates that the hungriest customers will be served last. While you’d ordinarily save their appetites for the main course, avert disaster with bread, crackers, or your ever-present stash of Cheerios or graham crackers.

Be creative: Many restaurants will be happy to adjust grown-up meals—Linguini without the clam sauce, Chicken Parmesan without the Parmesan. Ask before you sit down to see how flexible they are, and be prepared to perhaps pay grown-up prices.

Dine early: A reservation after about 7:30 is going to produce tired children—and perhaps unhappy looks from the crowd around you. Who needs that kind of pressure? The early-bird hour is a much better bet all around.

Be realistic: Specialty dining at upscale eateries requires a special kind of kid,one who dine relatively peacefully and is entertained by conversation (this did not describe my kids). Save yourself the stress of trying to mold your child into something he or she is not. On the other hand, you may have the most well-behaved cherubs on the planet, but that will be irrelevant if the restaurant doesn’t want them. “We don’t prohibit children, but we don’t recommend bringing them,” is a hint. Take it and move on.

Let them eat cake: Small children (and even big ones like me) live for dessert. So, be creative. If there’s a restaurant you’re dying to try, feed the kids their main dish before your dinner reservation (perhaps via room service) and let them eat dessert while you enjoy dinner. It may raise a few eyebrows among your fellow diners, but as long as they’re well behaved, who cares?

Keep your sense of humor: A friend tells the story of her daughter and the gourmet macaroni and cheese made with real cheddar and Gruyere. “She cried when it arrived because she wanted the orange stuff from the box.” Whatever the cause of a meltdown, take heed of the hapless diners around you, pay your bill and leave. You can slowly relish the boxed-up food back in your hotel room after the kids have gone to bed.

If all else fails, try takeout: On our French escape, we bought some fixings at a local boulangerie and enjoyed the fare al fresco, albeit at the playground. Without the stress of the full-service meal, the girls became adventurous enough to sample a new flavor or two—and actually enjoyed them. Bon Apetit!