The holiday season is fast approaching. You might already be thinking of where to go out to eat brunch or dinner with your relatives from out-of-town. (Okay, maybe only if you're an extreme-planning personality type like me.) Thankfully, we are fortunate to have many great local restaurants in and around downtown Indianapolis. However, if you have young kids, or young nieces and nephews, as part of the group, the planning becomes more challenging. How do you know which eateries are kid-friendly? Are you stuck with visiting a chain restaurant like Chili's or the Old Spaghetti Factory? Will you have to leave the kids home with a babysitter so the adults can enjoy good food? What's a foodie to do? Never fear! You don't have to compromise on food quality or forgo eating local when dining out with kids. I've listed a few simple tricks to help avoid disaster (you know, simultaneous meltdowns from all three kids, having to carry them out kicking and screaming, that type of thing.)
5 Tips for Eating Out with Kids (And Not Losing Your Mind)
1. Bring snacks.
Seriously. This may sound counter-intuitive, and it might be disapproved of in other countries (right now I'm reading French Kids Eat Everything and figuring out how to work that magic on my children), but it really helps a situation where the food is taking a while to come out and the kids are complaining, loudly and dramatically, that they're literally so hungry they're about to DIE. (Or is it only my kids who do that?) A bag of string cheese, raisins, granola bars, or applesauce pouches can be a lifesaver.
2. Bring stuff to do.
Of course, this has changed a lot since my husband and I got smartphones several months ago. We used to pack bags full of crayons, colored pencils, coloring books, word searches and I-Spy games. We still try to bring at least one thing for each child to do while they wait for their food, and use videos on our phones as a last-resort entertainment option. (Also, we have two phones and three kids, so the numbers don't really work out.)
3. Encourage kids to try new things.
You may think your children will refuse to eat if they are presented with unfamiliar options. That's not necessarily true, even for the pickiest eaters. The best way for kids to learn to eat a healthy variety of different foods is if parents constantly encourage them to try things: new foods, strange-looking vegetables, unfamiliar meats, or even foods they've tried and disliked in the past. My husband and I now say to our kids every night at dinner, "You don't have to eat it, but you do have to taste it." We try to do the same thing when we eat at a restaurant: we share our food with the kids and encourage them to try it, and though we allow them to choose their own meal, we support them ordering from the adult menu instead of always getting a kids' grilled cheese sandwich. It works better with some kids than others, and with certain ages it's definitely easier to not even try, because you're just surviving. But a positive, reassuring attitude on the part of parents can help kids develop an openness to trying new foods.
4. Be prepared to leave early if necessary.
Sometimes, a multitude of factors combine to make the experience stressful: maybe the baby needs to eat, or be changed, and the older kids need to use the restroom multiple times during a single meal, and the toddler is tired because he didn't nap, so he doesn't eat anything and just sobs uncontrollably. In certain situations, there's really nothing you can do but give up, ask for your food to go, and pay as quickly as possible. That's okay. Most people are very understanding. But don't let one bad experience get in the way of eating out with your kids; be ready to try again soon. If you are dining out with a group of relatives, one of them might be willing to take the crying baby or antsy toddler for a walk around the restaurant until everyone else has finished their meals (we have done this many times; it's so helpful!).
5. Stay calm and don't expect the worst -- the kids might surprise you.
Really, there have been so many occasions when we were shocked that the whole experience of eating out with our kids was relatively smooth and not at all stressful. We have been surprised several times when we thought our kids weren't doing too well with manners or waiting patiently, and then some kind soul complimented us on their good behavior. You never know how it's going to play out, so go in with an open mind.
Top Kid-Friendly Local Restaurants
Several of our favorite local restaurants have a separate kids' menu - Shoefly Public House, Bru Burger, The Legend, Cafe Patachou, Yolk, and Napolese Pizzeria. Many others do not, but their "small plates" or "medium plates" categories can work well for children's meals, such as Union 50 or Cerulean. Other places we've found to be kid-friendly are Mimi Blue Meatballs, Milktooth, Love Handle, Pogue's Run Grocer (great deli sandwiches!), Foundry Provisions, Tea's Me Cafe, Jockamo Pizza, Santorini Greek Kitchen, The Garfield Park Eatery, Burgerhaus (on the canal), Mesh (on Mass Ave), and La Mulita (in SoBro).
To see a list of my foodie-approved picks for date nights in urban Indy, click here.
Happy holiday eating, everyone! Please add your favorite local kid-friendly places in the comments section below.