Life can be such a whirlwind, even if that whirlwind is made of lots of in-the-moment moments and exciting new collaborations. Such was this past week for me, with a few days camping in the wilderness completely offline (will share more on that soon). Also I was thrilled to have a couple of guest posts on two of my favorite (albeit completely different in theme!) blogs. If you haven’t already seen them and are inclined to do so, there’s one on parenting on Janet Lansbury’s blog, and another about writing on Shanna and Tim’s Food Loves Writing. Very grateful, for these posts brought in a lot of new followers, so if that’s you, welcome!
For this new installment of my Summer Goat Cheese Series in collaboration with Vermont Creamery’s Kids & Kids Campaign, I wanted to share a version of the French restaurant classic: the salade de chèvre chaud (warm goat cheese salad). Most restaurants, cafés and brasseries in France have it on their menu, it is what the French would consider a “run-of-the-mill” first course (or main course for lunch). This is also a dish Pablo LOVES, and which I would order for him in a heartbeat in a restaurant, as I think would a lot of French parents for their kids (or themselves for that matter.)
This is giving me an opportunity to write a somewhat practical post on taking kids (including infants and toddlers) to the restaurant.
One of my favorite connecting time with Pablo is when the both of us go out to lunch once in a while. We have taken him out to eat with us since he was a couple of months old, and continued to do so every so often since then. Between 6 and 12 months, I would bring his food with me (I would pack some vegetable finger food as a first course, a puree for the main course, some cheese and a yogurt for dessert) and give him a taste of what we were having depending on what it was. After 12 months, Pablo started to eat pretty much the same as us, I could easily just order for him from the menu.
Probably one of the greatest unspoken French rules of eating, is that a meal should be thoroughly enjoyable. If it is stressful or rushed, it feels like a waste. On recent trips, and as Pablo is at the height of toddlerhood (27 months now), I have been very grateful and so happy to see how great he is when we take him out to eat. He loves it, he stays at the table and is fairly well-mannered (the walls usually remain clean when we leave!), he eats heartily and with interest. I can relax and enjoy the meal with minor adjustments here and there.
A lot of people have witnessed this and expressed great surprise, and have asked me what my secret is. I never thought of it as a secret, but thinking back on it, that thoroughly enjoyable meal with our children has a few preconditions. Here are eight strategies and tips that have worked for us:
1 – We eat together as a family on a daily basis
So sitting down together for a meal, and eating the same (real) foods as us is nothing out of the ordinary for Pablo. It makes sense that children that are most often fed alone, before the grown-ups, wouldn’t do too well sitting at the table in a restaurant for a while. I’m really big on the family meal for many reasons, this one included. Plus, when children are fed separately, their meal is usually much faster than a family meal would be. (I’ve actually noticed on a couple of occasions where I ate a meal without Pablo, how much faster I eat then. Eating with him, encouraging him to eat slowly and mindfully, and being engaged with him during our family meals has helped me to slow down my eating greatly too.)
I should add also that thanks to a few strategies practised over time, our meals, at home or at the restaurant, are mostly sans power struggles or boundary testings, which is a blessing.
2 – We eat in courses at home
Just like at a restaurant. Pablo is used to eating a first course, then wait a little bit before the main course, then cheese and fruit or yogurt for dessert if desired. I’ve talked about the many benefits of eating in courses inthis very popular post. This is definitely an added benefit. When we go out to eat, the waiting factor is a non-issue. While we wait for the food, we have a nice little conversation about what we ordered and how the chef in the kitchen is preparing it, that usually gets his imagination going. Or we people watch, Pablo loves that too 🙂
3 – We engage him as an integral member of the meal
If we go out with Pablo, it is to have a nice meal with him. Otherwise, we go out without him, which we sometimes need to do and that’s fine. So I always make sure he’s part of the conversation, like any person you would have dinner with. This is definitely a time to connect. (When you think of it, how rude would it be to go out with someone to then proceed to have private conversations that exclude them?)
4 – He’s used to real food, and a wide variety of it
Forget kids’ menus. In most restaurants I’ve been to, they are a crying shame (as is the idea of kids’ food, in my opinion…) So I always order on the regular menu for him, and we share some of our dishes with him. The portions are often so big anyway, it works out perfectly. For example, recently at The Black Cat in Cambria, I ordered the celery root cilantro soup (which inspired this post) to share with him along with a couple of appetizers for us, and we shared our entrees with him, so he could get a taste of everything (which he loves).
The fact that he eats just about everything is a big factor as well, due to the fact that he’s been exposed to a wide variety of foods (vegetables, meat, fish) since 5 months old and especially during that golden window 6-18 months roughly where infants are so willing to try new foods and put just about anything in their mouth (a crucial period to steer away from kids’ foods). Even if he were to reject anything new now (which is not the case), he’s already tried so many different things these past two years of life that I would be hard pressed to find a (real) food he hasn’t already had. So no matter where we eat, there will always be something he will enjoy eating.
5 – He’s used to mindful eating
I usually avoid distractions at the table, so the meal is an end in itself and a pleasurable experience deserving of our full attention. Same goes at the restaurant. I definitely avoid all screens across the board (I will admit seeing kids or adults focused on their phones or other screens at the table drives me crazy). If there are television screens in the restaurant, I try to ask for a table away from them (or better, choose screen-free restaurants!) I might bring a small book or a crayon or two if the meal or the wait get a bit long.
6 – We go at the right time
I try to have realistic expectations, i.e. make sure Pablo’s not too tired, that he’s had a good afternoon nap or good night sleep if it’s lunch out. Also I try to make sure he’s had plenty ofindependent, self-directed play prior to the meal so he’s relaxed and ready to connect (but not overtired). And we go early enough so he doesn’t start to fade mid-meal. At home, we usually sit down for dinner between 6:45 and 7p, when we go out, we try for 6:30-6:45 to have plenty of time to enjoy the meal. I also make sure he’s bathed and in his pajamas when we go (or for a fancier meal, I bring his pajamas with me and change him at the restaurant after the meal). Thus the meal is the last, relaxing event of the day for everyone.
7 – We make sure he’s hungry
Snacking is very limited in our household, so the family meals are enjoyed fully and eaten with good appetite. Pablo has an afternoon snack (usually pretty light, he doesn’t seem to get that hungry) between 4:30 and 5pm. If we go out to dinner, I might offer it a bit earlier to insure he has a good appetite.
When we get to the restaurant, we also try to limit eating too much bread before the food arrives. (Bread is never served first in a French restaurant typically, but to accompany the meal in reasonable quantity, definitely not the thing to get full on when you’re most hungry.)
8 – Choosing the right restaurant
We don’t necessarily go for the typical “family-friendly”, as it can mean a loud environment. So first we choose a restaurant where we enjoy the food (seems obvious, but my point is that that takes priority over being “kid-friendly”.) We also try to go to restaurants that do have high-chairs or boosters: Toddlers tend to get fidgety and expecting them to sit still in a booth bench for example, is unrealistic, they’re bound to want to slide around, jump etc.
Also we choose restaurants that are not too loud. I found that Pablo gets tired and over-excited and stimulated fast with a very loud place (as we do.) So a place that lends itself to conversation is best (though since we usually go earlier than the crowds would, that often works out).
There you have it! I hope this is helpful. Would love to hear your tips and feedback!
In the meantime, enjoy this warm goat cheese salad, and if you want more information about Vermont Creamery and the Kids & Kids Campaign, check out their Facebook Page and Pinterest page too. As good as this salad was, their cheeses are so scrumptious I always enjoy them most pure, from the tip of my fingers 🙂
13 thoughts on “8 tips for an enjoyable restaurant meal with your kids, and a warm goat cheese salad”
I absolutely love this post. Since I discovered your blog, I've been slowly introducing a lot of the purees that you mention to my 7-month-old daughter. She's been a little show to take solid foods, but I am dedicated to introducing her to real food (so far we've done pureed green beans, zucchini, and carrots). I also want to prepare her to enjoy her meals so that we can go out to restaurants like you described in this post. This is very inspirational!
Thanks so much, Rachel, you're about to enter into that open-mind/open-mouth golden window with your daughter, very exciting! Glad this was helpful 🙂
Great post as always. I've eaten out with my daughter fairly regularly since she was born and like Pablo she's pretty well behaved with it all. I agree that the timing of the meal is very important, if they're tired and grumpy forget about it. I had to laugh when I read about eating slowly and waiting though, I try but Lucia eats ravenously like every meal is her last. A trait she's no doubt learnt from me unfortunately! Loving the goats cheese recipes.
Thank you, Jane 🙂 Ah yes, eating slowly is challenging for me as well. A work in progress and something I always have to be very conscious of.
I don't have kids (yet) but I really enjoyed hearing about how you have learned to navigate eating out with a toddler. This salad sounds wonderful–I love the "brain-like" look of that cheese–it's so unique! I will definitely be trying this method of warm goat cheese on a simple summer salad very, very soon.
Thank you, Lindsey, for staying with me through this very practical/parenting post! Something to keep in the back of your head for when you do have children one day maybe? 🙂 Let me know what you think of the salad if you try it!
Thank you, Helene, for another encouraging post. We're venturing out with Flannery to some restaurants that fit the criteria you suggest. I'm trying to take advantage of the open mind/open mouth period (LOVE that phrase) as much as possible. She enjoys the people-watching aspect of dining out, though we're still working on the patience-through-courses part. 😉 So far that seems to be the most difficult part, even at home. I'm thinking a little time will help, and reminding myself that eating habits–like Rome–are not built in a day!
Thanks, Lisa, indeed, these things take time. What a wonderful, exploratory phase Flannery is in right now, I found this stage fascinating to watch, they're so in tune with themselves and the world, it seems, there's much to learn from them. The patience part is really something they seem to learn on their own from our model over time, not something we can teach them per se…
Great post Helene. I don't have kids yet myself, but will keep these in mind when the time comes. I also completely agree with you on the point about kids food — the whole category shouldn't exist.
Thank you Courtney, I'm always so appreciative when non-parents make it through these practical posts 🙂
Dear Helene, I just love reading every post and loved this one especially. We've been taking our 19 month old son out to eat regularly since he was a few months old – we even took him with us on a 2 week vacation to France when he was 9 months old, where we ate out in restaurants constantly! You mentioned the importance of booster chairs and high chairs at the restaurant, but in my experience, we've come across some terrible chairs (for instance, ones that will only barely put his head above the level of the table), so we bought the Inglesina Fast Chair, and it makes dining out a breeze! We can eat anywhere without thinking of whether the restaurant can accomodate us, and it's not only secure, comfortable, and easy to use, but it also folds flat in it's own carrying case, which makes it extremely convenient to carry. Not only do other parents stop to comment on the chair, but the waiters and staff love the unobtrusiveness of the design. Hope you and your readers like it. To me, it's a definite must have! http://www.diapers.com/p/inglesina-fast-table-chair-liquirizia-black-278760
Thank you Lisa for the kind words and the tip! Does look super convenient, I'll have to get one next time we travel!
Thanks for the tips about goat cheese salad. i am so happy to read ur post,