My tips for dining out on the town with even the of pickiest eaters!
Since Jade was young, I made it priority to bring her along to restaurants with me, with the hope that by being surrounded by new tastes and new environments, that she would grow to love and appreciate food the way I do. Restaurants have come a long way in the last few years, but I've always had a real problem with the offerings a lot of restaurants serve up to their young diners. They tend to be bland, too sweet, way too starchy, and almost entirely devoid of color, unless you count the puddle of ketchup that accompanies the inevitable french fries. I have nothing against fries—they are definitely one of my guilty pleasures, especially when surrounding a nice juicy burger—but a pile of french fries and a bowl of plain spaghetti with butter and cheese is not my idea of dinner, or of a restaurant experience. And restaurants aren't pricing these kiddie meals so low out of altruism; it's possible to charge only $3.95 for a meal when it's made from cheap ingredients that have little nutritional value. I didn't want Jade eating that kind of food, and your kids either!
Though the kids menu at my Vegas restaurant— also known as "Jade's Menu"— does have the usual suspects like chicken fingers, grilled cheese, and pizza, I made sure that every dish delivered in terms of appearance, taste, and nutrition. For starters, every entree comes with a real vegetable, a choice of green beans or broccoli sautéed in olive oil, not fries. (In fact, we don't serve fries at all in the restaurant.) And most of the kids' dishes are really junior-sized portions of things on the grown-up menu made with the same high- quality ingredients and seasonings. The meatballs on the pizza, for example, are the same chicken meatballs we serve in a marsala sauce on our antipasto menu, and the house-made rigatoni (regular or gluten-free) is served with a light tomato sauce that looks pretty much identical to the food on Mom and Dad's plate. In fact, I've shared the recipe below for you to try at home.
In all my years dining out with Jade, I've found these tips to really work for us, and I hope they'll work for you too!
My Tips for Eating Out with Kids
1. Make sure your kids aren't too hungry. This may sound counterintuitive, but a ravenous kid is a rambunctious, unhappy kid, and even the most accommodating restaurant can't make food appear magically the second you order. If you don't want to end up wrestling over the bread basket, give your kids a snack of raw veggies or a piece of fruit before you leave home to stave off hunger pains.
2. Stow the electronics. When I see a child wearing headphones — off in her own world, plugged into a movie or video game—it makes me think about what a missed opportunity it is for that family to share a special occasion together. Work on social skills by allowing your child to interact with the server, play I Spy or 20 Questions to keep her engaged with her surroundings, and talk about what makes the experience different from eating at home or a fast food joint.
3. Check out the regular menu. There's no law that says children must order off the kid's menu, and there are always more interesting choices to be had than what's designated kid friendly. Steer your child toward dishes with familiar flavors served in a new way, and ask if the kitchen will plate up half a serving and pack the rest to go. That way you're getting two meals or more for the price of one and you won't be wasting food.
4. Share! You'll never know if there is a sweetbread lover or a fan of squid ink pasta under your roof if your child doesn't try it, but don't ever force her to taste something if she really doesn't want to. I like to have Jade try one new thing at every meal, and if she tastes it and doesn't love it, we just leave it at that and try something else the next time. More often than not, though, she discovers a new food to add to her yummy list.
5. Get sauces on the side. Some kids have a thing about sauces and will be much happier with their pork tenderloin or salmon fillet of they can drizzle or dip the sauce as they want.
6. Reward good behavior. Did I mention the dessert cart? Even if it's one piece of cheesecake with four forks, it's nice to finish a dining experience on a sweet note.