Traveling with Kids While Still Eating Well
Traveling with kids is not easy. Any parent can tell you this. Navigating the restaurant scene can be daunting for even the most seasoned travelers, but throw a kid or two into the mix and the task of finding the perfect place to eat can become mission impossible. Even if you have the perfect kid (I, like many other parents out there, like to think that I do), dining out with a small child poses quite a difficult challenge.
I still remember the conversations I had with my fiancé, Daniel, before we got married. “We’re still going to travel,” we said. “We’re still going to go out to eat. We’re not going to stop just because we have kids.”
Before we had our daughter Dhalia, my husband and I loved to get away from the harsh Northeastern winters and travel to Florida to get some much needed sunshine and seek out the best seafood restaurants. We continued the tradition once Dhalia came into our lives, and luckily as an infant, she would often sleep peacefully next to us in a car seat at the restaurant. “We’re doing it!” we’d whisper happily, clinking glasses of margarita. Then she got a little older and we had to work a little harder at it. And things changed. Dramatically.
Add to this the fact that restaurant choices typically range from places that are just way too fancy (and where kids and their harried parents are pretty much guaranteed to get the stink-eye from patrons and servers alike) or mass-market corporate chains with really boring food and zero ambience.
But don’t despair. There is still hope for parents looking for that one spot to feed their family. If a restaurant has a friendly wait staff, a kitchen open to the flexible whims of a child’s palate, and a room of diners tolerable of tantrums, it adds up to a winning formula for feeding your children outside of the home.
Before you go though, you have to do some preparation. Here are some of my tips and suggestions:
- Set some ground rules, and start practicing them first at home. Children are creatures of habit. That is why I tried to establish realistic guidelines at home, and then follow through with them at the restaurant.
- Which brings me to my second rule: Choose your battles carefully. A restaurant is not the place to get into an unnecessary confrontation with your child. Sometimes it’s better to let minor transgressions go rather than getting into a battle of wills that could spoil the whole dining out experience.
- Pack a bag of toys. Bring some of your children’s favorite books, games, and (quiet) toys. Even better, pack a couple of new, small toys that will hold their interest (at least until the food arrives). I also learned to bring some of Dhalia’s favorite snacks, just in case the food is slow to arrive or not to your child’s liking.
- Choose a child-friendly restaurant. I like to pick one that is casual and loud enough to absorb any noise caused by one of Dhalia’s tantrums. Even though for some places it’s not applicable, I like to make a reservation if possible, so we don’t have to wait to be seated.
- Go early. We like to be among the first to arrive for the breakfast, lunch, or dinner hour as we get seated and served more quickly.
If you’re new to eating out with kids, consider working your way gradually up the food chain by practicing good behavior in a basic burger joint, where manners matter less to those around you. Buffets or other casual chain restaurants are great for families with small children — kids like the wide selection, and everyone is walking around, so no one minds (or even notices) your taking short forays with your toddler.
With that in mind, I’ve made a selection of five best kid-friendly locations in Southern Florida we have recently visited on our trips that we guarantee to please both big and little diners, whether you live in the area or are in vacation.
When it comes to child-friendly restaurants, themed restaurants for kids are the ideal solution. At Giraffas your kids can enjoy a scrumptious kids’ cheeseburger, accompanied by fries and smiles, in a very colorful and welcoming décor, which includes a life-sized family of giraffes on the restaurant’s wall.
2. Rainforest Cafe
Diners are supposed to feel as if they’re in a tropical rainforest. Artificial trees and vines drape across the ceiling jungle-like, with mechanical stuffed animals dashing, popping, and swinging about, cawing and growling. Menu items are diverse and kid-friendly. And to make you feel good about eating those amazing French fries, a percentage of Rainforest Café’s profits are filtered into sustaining the real rainforests of the world.
3. Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into It’s a Wonderful Life at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy shop, where everything is made fresh on the premises. It makes more than 50 flavors of ice cream, from classics such as chocolate and vanilla to exotic tropical flavors like mango and passion fruit. Just watch for that sugar rush.
4. Deck 84
Skip the indoor dining room and ask for a table on the considerable open-air patio where you and the family will get a stellar view of the Intracoastal Waterway. Little ones can gawk at the drawbridge as it rises for passing yachts. If patience starts to wane, there’s plenty of room to escape for a quick walk to the water to take a peek at any fish that might be happening by.
Burgers, fries, sundaes, hot dogs, shakes; the menu at this growing franchise is practically tailor-made for kids. But the quality of the product — not to mention the craft beer and wine selection — means it’s not a total culinary bummer for the grownups. Plus, if soda isn’t completely off-limits in your family, the kids will get a kick out of the digital “freestyle” fountain where they can mix and match fizzy drinks to their heart’s content. Important note to parents with kids with allergies: French fries are made in peanut oil, so ask before ordering.
Life changes with children. It gets better, and richer, and bolder, and messier and at the end of each day, when we sneak into their rooms and watch them sleep, we wonder how we ever lived without them.
Melissa Clark is a passionate cook, writer and traveler. Melissa was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where she now lives with her husband, Daniel, and their daughter Dahlia. She has written 32 other cookbooks, many of them in collaboration with some of New York’s most celebrated chefs. Clark’s most recent book, Cook This Now, is a personal collection of seasonally driven, inventive comfort food.