By some measures my kids are adventurous eaters. Edamame have always figured prominently in their diets, and they have specific requests when visiting sushi restaurants (“May I please have a bowl of Miso soup with extra tofu, no ‘escallions,’ and a bowl of rice with a small bowl of tobiko on the side?” has been my older son’s standard order since he could speak full sentences. His brother, a.k.a. “Me Too,” has followed suit.) Oh, and they only eat hot dogs when we are camping (must be impaled on a stray tree branch and roasted to a crisp over a camp fire, and there must be s’mores at the ready for dessert.
But there are also lots of droughts in their adventure seasons. They tend to get stuck in the rut of “kid foods” more often than I care to admit. I’m not, as I’ve revealed in this space before, the world’s most reliably good cook. There are days when it “happens,” and days when my husband and kids politely thank me for making dinner as we scrape the inedible mush into the trash and help ourselves to bowls of cereal as consolation. But I am a lover of great food. And I want my kids to be, too.
So we have always treated vacations as a prime opportunity to force our kids to dine outside the box. And, because they know this rule, they also know that we can pull it out of our pockets at any time (we are, after all, the parents) and lay it on them in a local restaurant during a school vacation, special occasion, or just a one-hour “vacation” from the house.
To wit: We recently visited the Seafood Buffet at Deer Valley Resort not far from where we live, where my sons had the opportunity to try rather sophisticated menu items in a relaxed setting. We told them that it was a “vacation rules” moment, and they hit the ground running.
Here are 8 “vacation rules” that may work for your family:
1. Try at least one new food a day
During vacations our kids have to try at least one new food per day, sometimes two, depending on lunch and dinner plans.
2. Enjoy one of your favorite foods all day
We also have an “it’s vacation, so it’s all-you-can-eat-ice-cream week” rule. That is, if the opportunity for ice cream arises once, or even twice, a day, our kids get some. (Which means, generally, that they only want it once a day – and we try for lunch to avoid the pre-bedtime sugar rush). This can apply to any dessert, of course. We’re very fair that way.
3. Go to sleep or don’t eat
Sleep patterns determine restaurant success. When you’re traveling stick to routines wherever possible, unless there is a really good reason. If that reason is, say, the circus, or a late reservation at the restaurant everyone said we must try, then a mandatory, mid-afternoon siesta is enforced.
4. Try fine dining at least once
Expect your kids to be kids, but also to rise to the occasion of fine dining at least once on the trip. This means seeking out kid-friendly fine-dining options, like a high-end buffet (I promise that’s not an oxymoron) or a restaurant with a specific theme that might engage them. I like to call ahead and talk to the maitre’d to see if there is a sympathetic “we are all parents, too, and we applaud your refusal to eat Kraft dinners every night” vibe or a snooty “we don’t have high chairs” response.
— Larissa Kosmos
— Amy S.F. Lutz
— Larissa Kosmos
5. Eat early
Go out early whenever possible. When my firstborn was about 18 months old, we booked a 5:30 table at one of our town’s – nay, our state’s – best restaurants. We told them we were bringing the kid. They promised a varied and fun children’s menu. They tucked us into a room that was far away from “romance central” in the main dining room. We were treated to a few skeptical glances as our babysitter-hiring fellow diners began to arrive, and then the kid turned on the charm, tried some fish, and comported himself like a gentleman. We praised our genius temperament, but it was his disposition, mixed with a little bit of our pushing the “fun” of trying new things, that really did the trick. By meal’s end (when he was indulging in a giant ice cream sundae), every other patron in the room complimented him for his manners and behavior and claimed that their kids couldn’t hack such an outing. I beg to differ.
6. Plan together
In our family Guy Fieri is something of a deity. We are all devout watchers of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. So when we are visiting a new city, we ask our kids to help us look up “Guy’s restaurants” – that is, places he has visited on the show. I know we’re not the only ones to do this, but the added layer of the kids being “in” on the planning is key to a successful outing.
7. Reward risks with dessert
We order proactively, making sure at least one other person at the table has a sure bet they can trade if the “risk” order doesn’t work out. And, yes, risk is always rewarded with dessert. You may have some sugar-free treat in mind (an extra bedtime story, for instance), which can work as well.
8. Leave if you need to
Look, no plan is foolproof. We’ve been known to read the spaghetti on the wall and hastily ask for a to-go box, throw down a big tip, and high-tail it out of a restaurant. Once, we sat down to a meal poolside at a very fancy beachfront hotel in Palm Beach, and the kids started throwing fits and complaining about the comfort level of the chairs, the height of the water glasses, and, well, nearly everything. We listened to it for a moment then announced to the kids that dinner was over, left, yep, a big tip, and headed back to our room. What ensued was a teaching moment – about manners, humility, the fact that many people have nothing to eat, or precious little in the way of choices. We handed them granola bars so they wouldn’t starve, let some time pass, let them come up with appropriate consequences (they did and, sweet relief, ordered room service spaghetti about 90 minutes later. “We should have done this in the first place,” we all said in unison. Of course, the next night, we got the best behavior ever – and haven’t seen a spoiled-kids restaurant fit since.
With all of that in mind, actually getting your kids to embrace these habits can be tricky. So do a lot of reassuring, encouraging and rewarding effort over result. And remember that comfort zones are scalable. Getting your preschooler to try a pasta with veggies may be as challenging as getting the bigger kid to try a new kind of fish. So give credit accordingly. When in doubt, keep peace in the teepee. Bon appetit!