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Tips for Eating Out with Kids

Traveling with Kids? Tips for Dining on a Dime

by Elizabeth Young

After a long morning at the Louvre museum, tromping through room after room of priceless goodies, we were starving. My boys were in that state, "if I don't get food instantly, I'm going to turn into a growling alien with eight mouths and arms." From the museum, we headed to the rue de Rivoli.

On a side street, people streamed in and out of a sandwich shop. We ducked into the shop, and 10 minutes later, my food bag was stuffed with baguette sandwiches and cold drinks. We hustled over to the Tuileries Gardens. Despite a cool October day, the park benches were filled with local Parisians, having their lunch outdoors. We had a wonderful impromptu picnic. The boys gobbled their food standing up (atrocious table manners), while I gratefully slouched on a park bench, enjoying my sandwich - tender French ham and good cheese on a chewy baguette.

Food is one of most pleasurable and potentially most irritating aspects of traveling with kids. When kids get hungry, they get cranky or picky, and it doesn't matter where you are, it's no fun. Food is also a big chunk of travel expenses for a family. Eating out in restaurants all the time can cost a bundle and little kids may not want to wait for infinity and beyond to eat a meal. Here's some tips to help you to have fun and save money.

Start the day right

Breakfast can be a simple affair. As a cost saving, if you're traveling by car, bring breakfast supplies with you, or shop in a supermarket after you check into your hotel. Many motels or hotels have refrigerators, so all you need is milk, juice, yogurt, fruit, dry cereal, paper bowls and plastic utensils. Eating in your room, breakfast is out of the way - when you leave your hotel, you're ready to start sightseeing (instead of hunting for a place to eat). And kids can eat in their pajamas.

For a change of pace, splurge on a Sunday brunch or a big breakfast buffet. Breakfast buffets often have kids' favorites - pancakes, French toast or waffles, muffins, bagels, fruit salad, along with sophisticated dishes and local specialties.

"On the spot" picnics

Picnics are fun for everyone in the family. There's no waiting interminably for food to be served, no spilled milk dripping onto your lap, no nagging at the kids, "Put your napkin in your lap, hold your fork properly, don't squirm at the table." Whatever you're eating, it tastes delicious. Kick back and relax, while the kids run around.

You can picnic anywhere - in a grassy city park, at the seaside, riding on a train, sitting along a hiking trail next to bubbling stream. And picnics aren't for lunches only - bring a picnic to the beach at sunset. Wherever you are, there are possibilities for picnicking, even in a big city. And, picnics are easy on the budget.

Buying your picnic is part of the fun and you can shop to please individual tastes in your family. Supermarkets are open day and night, and usually have a deli where you can have sandwiches made, or get roast chicken, sushi, salads, plus fresh fruit, cut-up carrots and celery, cold drinks, chips, cookies - everything you need for a first class picnic. Another easy option is to scout out a delicatessen for sandwiches. If you're staying in a neighborhood far from shopping, in the morning, ask at your hotel to arrange a picnic. Hotel restaurants are often equipped to do so.

Tip: In your luggage, tuck in a packable tote bag as your "food bag" - to hold picnic supplies. Bring a lightweight bag, preferably nylon or vinyl, so it can be wiped off if food gets spilled on it.

Snacks and treats

While traveling with children, it's important to take frequent breaks, so parents can relax and kids can re-energize. And late in the day, don't start in on some huge museum without a substantial snack first. One way to get to know a neighborhood is to sample the local treats. What about a local ice cream shop that makes its own ice cream, or a bakery with cookies shaped like surfers in a beach city, a diner with the best milkshakes, a fresh-baked bagel, hand-squeezed lemonade, old-fashioned candies or sodas in an Old West town? A snack break can be a quick stop to buy a soft pretzel from a street vendor, or a big event like afternoon tea at a fancy hotel.

Eating healthy

On your trip, you may feel your kids aren't really eating a balanced diet. Too many hot dogs and sodas or fast food because it's everywhere you turn? Be on the lookout for juice bars and smoothies, drinks with fresh fruit and yogurt. Popular ice cream shops often have smoothies. Jamba Juice is a juice bar you can find all over California. Vegetarian or health conscious sandwich shops often have fresh-squeezed juices.

Picky eaters

If your kids are picky eaters at home, what to do while traveling? Encourage openness to try new things, but don't take away choices. One summer when I was young, we stopped into a little seafood joint in Washington state. My mother ordered the local specialty, Dungeness crab, but let us kids order hamburgers. When her crab came, we tried a morsel or two - it was so delicious, our hamburgers went untouched. (My mother ordered more crabs.)

It isn't always easy to accommodate everyone's tastes in a family. When you ask the question, "What do you want for lunch or dinner," one child wants a pizza, another a hamburger, another is vegetarian, one parent feels like a salad, another is hungry for a stack of ribs. Look for food courts or "country" markets, where there are kiosks with all kinds of foods, reasonably priced. The Farmers Market in Los Angeles has been popular with local kids since the 1930's, and is still going strong with over 25 different food stalls. The Grand Central Terminal food court has New York favorites - Junior's Delicatessen, pizza, Indian vegetarian, dim sum, chicken noodle soup, hot bagels, custard ice cream.

Splurge dining

At some point in your trip, it's nice to get dressed up and eat in a "splurge" restaurant as a special experience. But in a strange city, how do you avoid venturing into a restaurant, only to have the waiters stare at you with cold frozen looks, and belatedly you realize you've stepped into a romantic bistro, only whispers are allowed and there are tables for two. Or, after you're seated in the restaurant, you discover the menu consists of dishes such as goat cheese covered with prune sauce, topped with flecks of dried squid, something none of your kids will touch and the price is through the roof.

Splurge dining can be fun, and worth the expense. Reservations may be required, so do some scouting in advance. Check out the menu posted outside or ask to see a menu. When the restaurant has a kid's menu, by definition kids are welcome. (Use this as leverage if your kids aren't perfectly well-behaved.) But the lack of a kid's menu doesn't mean that a splurge restaurant won't be fun. Check out other options on the menu - many fancy Italian restaurants will do half portions of any pasta dish for kids. Or, sometimes a restaurant will prepare an item from their lunch menu at dinner. If the menu looks okay, but you're still not sure if children are welcome, go inside the restaurant and ask if you can split an entrée for kids. If they answer in a friendly way, this is a good sign; if the maitre d' is insulted you asked, that restaurant isn't a good prospect. Some expensive restaurants simply like kids, and go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, so take advantage of good service.

Childhood food memories are long-lived, and trips even more so. It might be a memory of sitting up straight at a restaurant with sparkling white table cloths, where the waiter hands you your own menu and you feel very grown up, sitting out by the river eating fresh cantaloupe on a camping trip, reaching for little pastries during "high tea" at a fancy hotel, munching on a cheese sandwich and hard boiled eggs while riding on a train, shaking off the sticky sugar from Mexican pastries in Old Town San Diego, or dreaming of a chocolate river at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain in San Francisco where the ice cream sundaes and banana splits are really big, really cold and, "My dad stole the banana."

Travel for Kids publishes Fun Food for Kids, family travel restaurant guides. Fun Food for Kids lists hundreds of restaurants and eating spots, located in areas your family will want to explore.

(Source: Travel For Kids)