Go to some decent non-chain restaurants, people! Okay, that’s pretty much the rant. I’m exhausted. And, honestly, I think my readers aren’t the right audience for this particular rant. Because, sophisticated folks that you are, you get on the computer and find interesting things to do. So you’re probably motivated enough to come up with some good restaurant choices. But when I was chatting with people, I kept hearing the same two answers, over and over: “We just don’t go out much” or “The only place we go is [insert restaurant from last post here] because the kids will only eat [insert one item on the menu].” So for those of you who need a lecture on how to expand your horizons, I’ll get to that with The 3 Big Problems with Going Out to Dinner with the Whole Family.
But first, me and my world.
Dining out with kids is challenging. When M was brand new, our first attempt at dinner out ended with us aborting the mission during the salad course. But I’d say it’s been easier for us than for many partly just because we’re lucky. First, I’ve got two girls, and we all know that, generally, your average girl will sit longer and more quietly than your average boy. Second, my kids act much better out of the house than in. I really lucked out with this one, and I’ll even sometimes take the kids out of the house specifically in order to ensure better behavior. From all of us. One day, when M was 3 and J was 1, things were going terribly. I can’t remember the specifics of what they were doing, but they were both so awful that 1) I felt quite sorry for myself and 2) I was afraid that I would hit or otherwise abuse them if I remained alone with them. So I decided to take us out to lunch. I’ll admit it: it was one of those crappy chains. But I was nervous about taking them out to lunch by myself, and this place had crayons, so it made me feel more secure. As soon as we arrived, they transformed into the two most delightful and well-behaved angels you could ever hope to see. In fact, near the end of the meal, a nice old lady approached our table and told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Why, those are the most delightful and well-behaved little angels that I’ve ever seen. You are doing a fine job.” Yay, me! I was doing a fine job! Not only had being out in public prevented me from becoming an abuser, I was now a contender for Best Mommy Ever. Very self-satisfied, I packed the girls up and left our table, and I am absolutely not kidding when I tell you that as soon as we exited the main restaurant and were in the little foyer between the two sets of doors, M began wailing in a crayon-related tantrum. It was as if she knew that the spotlight had turned off and she could unleash her demonic Little Miss Hyde character. I barely wrestled her into the car. But that nice old lady’s warm fuzzies gave me the patience of a saint for the rest of the day.
When we choose to go out to a nice dinner, it’s almost always ethnic. This is mostly because we’re pretty good cooks. Pasta, burgers, diner food: usually I like how we cook it at home better, anyway. But I’m less skilled with the ethnic varieties. Oh, sure, I’ll stir-fry or make samosas at home, but it’s never as good as at a restaurant. Now, if I’m going on a date, we’ll sometimes do Italian or French because it’s nice & fancy with a bottle of wine, but if I’ve got the kids, I’m not going to pay 8 bucks for my kids to eat noodles with marinara sauce. I’ve actually talked about this before, like when I posted about Mexican restaurants in the area, going out for Thai food, going for Vietnamese food, or going to our local Chinese Buffet. I’ve got a list of suggestions for you, but first, let me convince you to go, in case you need convincing.
The 3 Big Problems with Going Out to Dinner with the Whole Family
It’s Too Expensive.
Um, yes. You’re right. It is expensive, absolutely. That’s why it’s my first problem, because I can’t really argue with you there. But here are a couple of suggestions:
- Skip the little expenses so that you can splurge on a big one. Instead of going to McDonald’s for lunch three times, go out to dinner someplace really good once. Or make coffee instead of buying coffee, or make sure that you’ve always got snacks from home so that you’re not shelling out for overpriced snacks because you’re desperate.
- Drink water. Seriously, especially if you’ve got little kids, get them used to drinking tap water when you go to restaurants. All that juice and lemonade and soda adds up, and it’s bad for them, anyway. If you start early enough, it actually becomes their preferred drink. Like, when we felt sorry for the girls on a car trip and let them choose soda: they were all excited, but then they left the soda unfinished and asked for more water.
- Kids can be pretty cheap. Even the kid-sized portions are often too large for little kids, so you can have some kids just eat bites off your plates. Kids who are picky eaters can often get by on very basic side dishes (more on this later). Some restaurants have special “kids eat free” nights–I named a couple in the last post. It’s always worth it to call up a restaurant and ask if they have special kids-eat-free deals, because if people keep asking they might start to do them.
- There are also those crazy entertainment coupon books–I myself get a migraine just from reading through them, but I have friends who love them.
I’m worried about the kids behaving themselves.
Honestly, you really should be a little bit worried. You may recall that I told people nervous about bringing kids to the theater that they should just relax, because there would definitely be some kids who were much naughtier? That isn’t the case when it comes to restaurants. At Sesame Street Live, the crowd will be safe and friendly. But in a restaurant, it’s quite possible that complete strangers will watch you walk in holding a toddler by one hand while hiking one of those enormous infant car seats on the opposite hip, and they’ll commence muttering and eye rolling immediately. Now, it’s not worth getting angry. Let’s show compassion for these unfortunate curmudgeons. What a bitter & sorrowful life to lead, when they’re so certain that anyone under 15 is destined to ruin their meal. What terrible experiences must have transformed them into Judgey McJudgesters eagerly awaiting the first signs of Bad Parenting? Really, it’s tragic. Let’s treat these poor souls with compassion by showing them decently behaved children. Because every time our kids are delightful in restaurants, we are Making the World a Better Place. We are sending the happy karma out there. If enough of us do it, we can neutralize these grouches so that they’ll take a deep breath, smile benevolently, and notice how freakin’ cute these kids are.
- Have meals together at home every day. If your kids are used to sitting at dinner with you & having a conversation, they’ll be able to do it in the outside world. I have a confession to make: I don’t really love eating with my kids. They’re always spilling or asking me to cut their food or telling me long stories or just spacing off in the middle of a sentence. . . it’s just not very relaxing. I’d prefer to sit by myself and leaf through a magazine & eat. I often do end up eating on my own for one reason or another. But we do family dinner, and I think that it makes restaurant time easier.
- Go early. Almost every kid behaves better earlier than later, and if you go earlier than you’d usually eat the meal, no one will be starving. The whole restaurant will be quieter, and the people who show up early tend to have more flexible schedules, so they’re more relaxed, while the later lunch or dinner crowd is more likely to be intense.
- Go ethnic. They’re just friendlier to kids. Sometimes the restaurants are family businesses and you even see some kids hanging out while they’re parents are working. But even if there aren’t any kids in sight, the ethnic restaurants tend to have a more welcoming vibe to families.
- Receive food asap. W & I always joke that the kids are ticking time bombs. . . they could go off at any moment, so let’s get down to business, people! Strategies for quick food include: buffet, calling ahead and placing your order before going to the restaurant (not every place will do this, but they’re more likely to if they do take out, they’re non-chain, and/or you’re a regular) or placing an order when you put in your name for a table if you have to wait. You can also check the menu online at many places (or pick something you know they’ll have, like rice at anyplace Asian) and order it as soon as you sit down.
- Take a walk. If the kids are going nuts, the adult who loses rock/paper/scissors takes the kid for a walk. There might be an exciting destination inside (like a fountain or a fish tank), but outside the restaurant is great. It’s summer, take ’em for a little walk. Bring a cell phone so that your dinner companions can call you when the food arrives.
My kids are picky eaters.
This is another problem that really starts with how the kids eat at home. And I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging for six months (oh my gosh! it’s been six months!) without ever mentioning Ellyn Satter‘s book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. This is my very favorite parenting advice book. It’s the only book in which I feel like the advice absolutely made a difference and helped my kids to “turn out” better. You know: so far. And I found this book reassuring, non-stress-inducing, and effective. Both of my girls are decent eaters. Yes, I’d love it if they ate more vegetables, but generally they do pretty well. But here are some suggestions if you’re trying to branch out:
- One of the main points of the Child of Mine book is that asking/begging/forcing kids to try stuff will just turn into a power struggle, but if you’re eating and enjoying good food, kids will naturally want to do it, too, because they want to be super-cool grown-ups. Also, they won’t starve if they just eat bread at dinnertime. So, keeping those in mind, get thee to a restaurant that you’ll enjoy, and if your child only wants bread or rice, well, hey! More for you!
- You might be underestimating them. Plus, seeing and smelling the food is a great motivator. This is why one of my favorite approaches with a new food is a glorious buffet. Don’t make their plate for them, or at least bring them with you, because I guarantee that they’ll choose things that you don’t expect. I’ll always remember when M asked for raw broccoli at the Chuck E. Chees salad bar. I’d served sauteed and steamed broccoli and she’d always turned up her nose. I hate it raw, but it’s still such a favorite that she requested raw broccoli for her birthday party today.
- There are easy, cozy comfort foods everywhere. I’ll suggest some below, but you can always ask your server.
- Packaging helps. Your kid might be attracted to vegetables cut into flowers or cute looking items like sushi or stuffed grape leaves. And any variation on a dumpling is a sure winner for my kids.
- Check the side dishes. Here’s where you’ll find the very common, inexpensive stuff that will appeal to kids–the basic starch, or whatever is requested so frequently that even the kids are likely to approve it.
- Check the combination appetizers. You’ll get a smorgasbord to choose from.
- If you’re trying for a starter on “exotic” foods, try going to an Italian restaurant and just order the pasta in a different shape than usual. Or choose an unusual looking pastry or a crepe. Something that you cannot fathom that your child could possibly not like. And then, when they gag on it, keep your poker face and try something else on another day.
So here are some ethnic suggestions (with suggested dishes for fussy kids):
- Chinese, like Emperor’s, Tai Pan in Clifton Park (which has various other Asian fusion dishes–a reader loves it), and the Golden Phoenix (Buffet, baby!).
- Thai, like Capital Thai on Central Avenue in Albany or Bangkok Bistro (which we love). Pick chicken or beef sate–very plain and un-scary for kids. Plus, if your kid likes to dip, the dips are yummy.
- Vietnamese, like Van’s (Our favorite) or my linh
- Japanese, like Koto (this has the hibachi, cook-at-the-table, which is entertaining, along with a fountain with koi to visit during slow moments). Chicken tempura is basically chicken fingers.
- For all the Asian restaurants, pick dumplings, fried rolls, noodles, or rice for picky eaters. For almost anything you can ask for sauce on the side, which makes it easier to pick out whatever’s appealing to your kids.
- Mexican, and I listed a bunch of them. Our favorite is El Mariachi. Bombers also has a taco buffet during the week for lunchtime (starting at 11) and all day on Tuesdays in Schenectady. Off the menu, quesadillas are a safe bet. My kids always want beef, bean, & cheese burritos. You can ask for plain tortillas and a side of extra beans or cheese. Another good choice is fajitas–at many place you assemble these yourself, so it’s like having a mini buffet that your child can choose from.
- Syrian/Lebanese, like Mamoun’s Falafel. Choose hummus & pita, rice, or kebobs of meat.
- Indian, like Sitar (when I asked the girls their favorite place for dinner, this was it. If you’re bored while waiting, count the elephants), or Karavalli (also yummy, and a commenter loves it). My kids love samosas (dumpling-ish) & pakora (with potatoes, they’re like Indian French fries) to start and they’re all crazy about Chicken Tikka Masala. And of course rice or nan. And, like our commenter said, you can get a mango lassi to drink right away!
And if you’re just looking for good restaurants in the area–whether or not they offer crayons–you can check out Metroland’s picks, the Times Union’s readers’ poll or their reviews, or blogs like the TU’s Table Hopping blog or the Albany Eats blog.
Okay, I’m feeling pretty stupid because I told myself that I’d go to bed early tonight and it’s 11:10 pm. So I’m not even proofreading. Please forgive any errors, and if you know about a blogging 12-step program, please let me know.