Don't let travelling with kids stop you from having great restaurant experiences. A little planning ahead and your whole family can experience some great culinary experiences. Here's some tips just in time for spring break travels!
Travelling as a family and providing our children with those unique opportunities and experiences specific to travel can be wonderful, but it’s shocking how many foodie parents give up what is – for me, anyways – the best part of vacation, just because they have kids in tow.
Good food. Great restaurants.
What’s the point in travelling to Chicago and eating exclusively at The Cheesecake Factory or Bubba Gump Shrimp, or worse, searching for a pair of golden arches?
It’s reasonable to assume that most kids won’t be able to sit through the tasting menu at Alinea; but lunch at Topolobampo or Naya, or a leisurely supper at GEB or Blackbird should absolutely be possible.
For me, someone who quite possibly loves food more than I love travel, raising my daughter to be a pleasant mealtime companion and “restaurant training” her has allowed us to have completely different food & travel experiences than many of my friends.
Now, I’m not a tiger mom. And, I haven’t “trained” my kid in any other way – sleep training, potty training, car training – I figured those would just work themselves out. But restaurant and mealtime training – that was a quality of life issue. (We’ll talk about my priorities another time...)
After instilling basic table manners, practicing dining out, instilling a positive food culture, and eliminating mealtime distractions (even those meant to buy you some peace and quiet), most families will have a good grasp of which steps they will need to take to ensure a positive restaurant experience – but when you’re travelling, there are some extra precautions to take to ensure a great experience for you, your children… and the other patrons of the restaurant.
Have a loose schedule.
Try to estimate how long you will spend at each attraction, look up the travel times on Google Transit, and figure out which flow makes sense for the day. IE: I know I’m going to feel less guilty if we go to the Chicago Children’s Museum first and end up spending more time there than we had planned, than I would if we spent more time than we had planned at a boring, grown-up activity and ended up with less time for the kids at the museum.
Looking at your schedule and having a rough plan for your day, you can plan to leave at the right time to make your well-timed reservation, and you’re less like to underestimate how long an activity will take and push the kids into the “hangry zone.”
Make the reservations
If you’re in a city that you’re not completely familiar with, ensuring that you’re actually going to eat at the restaurant that you show up at is pretty essential. Not all great restaurants allow reservations (ahem, David Chang), so at least knowing what your back-up options in that area will be in the instance that the no-RSVP resto is full will make life less stressful.
Also, let the staff know that you will be attending with (well-behaved) children. They will be more likely to seat you with a child-friendly server, put you in a quiet area of the restaurant, and will plan to be accommodating. Even if they are not used to having children attend, some restaurants love the opportunity to plan and make the visit special for their young patrons. We once arrived to a special ice cream brownie and note from the head chef!
Eat earlier than normal.
I can be really guilty of reverting back to my pre-parenthood days when on vacation, and wanting to stay out late and start supper around 8pm. That’s fine… if it’s the second supper!
I find kids tend to get tired quicker on vacation, with all of the new environments and stimulation. Eat a little bit earlier than normal, and if you want, plan for two suppers! (Just not for every night of the vacation…)
Check out the restaurant website and menu before visiting
Surprisingly, many people don’t do this! Make sure you’re not making a reservation on a special events night – guaranteed to be a bit more frenzied and loud. And even if your child has the most diverse palate, it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with the menu and be ready to order or narrow down their choices before the hanger strikes.
Know your limitations… and plan for the worst.
If you’re in a different city, children will be off routine and disruptions to your planned schedule will occur at some point, so planning for it – embracing it – will make everyone’s vacation easier.
I’m more likely to take Miss G out for breakfast or supper than out for lunch. Even though lunch is often more casual and child-friendly, she still naps around 12:30 or 1pm, so even if I time our reservation perfectly, if things run late, we have a very real possibility of facing a restaurant naptime meltdown. We tend to do quick, grab-and-go options from restaurants or gourmet grocers located close to the hotel or a park, and I let Miss G sprawl out while I enjoy my leisurely lunch.
Break all the rules… snack before supper.
I love appetizers, so this is an easily embraced one for me –plan for there to be a hold-up with supper and ensure the kids either get appetizers, or give them a snack before arriving at the restaurant. Something light, but better to ruin their supper than to have them meltdown before it gets to the table.
Also, make sure the kids are hydrated.
Get the kids in on the restaurant excitement.
My daughter has a strange and perplexing obsession with Anthony Bourdain, but if I tell her that Anthony Bourdain ate at a restaurant we’re going to eat at – she’s excited and ready to listen (and watch the Youtube clips of him at the restaurant over and over again…)
Tell the kids why you are excited to eat at this restaurant – why is it more than just a place to eat? If the chef has a cookbook, borrow it from a local library before your trip and try out a few of the recipes. Is there something about what the food represents that is exciting to you – culturally, scientifically, aesthetically? How can you build up that excitement in a way that is tangible for the kids?
To the kids, to the other patrons… and to yourself! Whatever your discipline style, to all of the other patrons in the restaurant if you don’t flat out stop the screaming and running around, you might as well be encouraging it!
Set your child up for success, but if they are just not going to have it for one reason or another, accept that you are not going to have a great meal if your kid is staring you down, sulking, or flopping out of their seat like a fish out of water. Respect that the people around you were looking forward to that meal just as much as you were.
If it’s something that the serving staff has the potential to help with, ask for help! If you need to rush your order and change it to a take-out, let them know and many restaurant teams will work together to help you out.
What are your best tips for foodie bliss while travelling with kids?
Jennifer Tammy is the blogger behind Study at Home Mama, a parenting inspiration, hands-on learning, and family foodie site. Trained as a psychologist, she currently runs Child’s Garden Montessori daycare and can’t wait until her next vacation.
You can connect with her on Social Media!