how to survive: dining out with kids
As most of you know, when I'm not chasing around a toddler, I'm a freelance writer who focuses largely on covering restaurant and chef news. I'm also an incorrigible foodie who is constantly adding to her restaurants-to-check-out list (120 and growing) and whose perfect date night would be more of a cheese-hop than a bar hop. Needless to say, it's always been important to me to have a kid who can not only appreciate many different cuisines, but can go out to eat at a restaurant without losing her mind.
Probably the best (for my soul) and the worst (for my dining budget) innovation in this arena is Nibble+squeak, a company that hosts events at some of the most spectacular restaurants around the world, where you can bring your small children. And we're not just talking the newest farm-to-table joint on the block; upcoming meals will be at powerhouses like the number one restaurant in the world (!), Eleven Madison Park, and and bastion of French cuisine Per Se. You can check out their full schedule here; they're currently running in 13 cities with more to come.
In short, you get all the benefits of eating at a fine dining restaurant without worrying if your kid is making too much noise, too much of a mess, or just being too much of a kid. There are always enough high chairs, changing tables, and kid-friendly bites, too. It's essentially heaven for a food-loving parent like me.
It's a simple, but brilliant concept; and you can thank founder Melissa Elders for bringing it to life. I was lucky enough to pin her down between travels to answer some of my most pressing questions about dining out with a toddler, plus chat about the genesis of her company and what's next on the table (literally and figuratively).
Did you have a "Eureka!" moment to come up with the idea for Nibble+squeak?
I suppose I did, during my maternity leave. Most likely I was exhausted and hungry, fumbling to open a banana one-handed while swaying from side to side to put my baby to sleep on my shoulder. My daughter was a winter baby, so our outdoor options were limited, but there was a local cinema that did baby-friendly screenings and it was SO nice. I looked forward to the weekly treat of doing something for myself -- no incessant nursery rhymes, no cartoon characters -- in an adult situation where I did not need to worry about napping and fussing and feeding since everyone else was doing the same things in the dim theater. I loved the idea of a parent-centric but child-accommodating activity, and naturally (at least for me!) I started to imagine what that would be like with food at the center of it. So I decided to create Nibble+squeak events that gathered parents -- some new, some veteran -- to treat themselves to a nice meal in an environment where they could similarly relax and enjoy something special for themselves.
And I thank you for it every day! I still can't believe the caliber of restaurants that have agreed to host events.
When we first started out, I wasn't thinking about three-Michelin-starred tasting menus, I was just eager to find places that had fresh, colorful and varied flavors, food that was infinitely more exciting than what I had the energy to prepare for myself at home. But it's actually not that surprising that some of the most accommodating and most generous restaurants have been the most high-end as well. After all, they pride themselves on their hospitality, on making their guests comfortable, and when we eliminate the factor of disturbing other diners by taking over the whole restaurant, they can really show off their best side.
And the restaurants really have fun with it too -- I think it must be a welcome change for them from their regular clientele, and they naturally understand how to make everyone feel like a VIP, from the tiniest napkin-throwing infants, to the curious but picky adolescent. Trained restaurant staff show a level of civility to children that may be unusual but is so vital to making them feel included: making eye contact with them, kneeling down to their level, and empowering them to participate fully in the meal.
What cities are next to conquer?
In the US, we just started chapters this autumn in Austin, Atlanta and Philadelphia, and we will launch in Seattle this January. We have had tons of interest from around the world, so we're planning on spreading our community a lot wider -- to more cities in the US and Europe, and to Australia and Asia as well. We're also working on a big web project that features our existing cities and some new ones. We'll be able to reveal details soon...!
And here in New York, what are some of the most kid-friendly restaurants you've been to?
There are lots of surprises in NYC about places that go out of their way to do something special for children. Two personal favorites:
Agern, which is a calm hygge oasis in Grand Central Station. They have a ton of highchairs available, and now even have a small private dining room too. And their butter is the best ever.
Untitled at the Whitney: you can sneak in some art before the kids get whiny for food. The restaurant has great high-end highchairs, a changing table in the bathroom for mom or dad to use, and fast, professional service.
You're obviously a pro at fine dining with children: what are your tricks to avoid meltdowns?
No parent is a pro at this, I'm pretty sure we all just figure it out daily, depending on our kid's age, mood, and hunger level! But in most cases, having a snack or small activity available for that lull between ordering and food arrival is key. I never appreciated a bread basket so much pre-parenthood, but now I smile a grateful smile of relief when one arrives. [Editor's note: preach, sister.]
For my daughter, who is three, I'm all about advance prep right now -- telegraphing what will happen at the meal so she can mentally adjust ("At this restaurant, we might use chopsticks and cook our food on a little grill on our table!), as well as managing her expectations to avoid disappointment ("They may not have pasta there, so we'll take a look at the menu and see what is available.").
Finally, I'd love to pick your brain on dining-out essentials for kids. What are your favorites?
Bib: I only ever used one bib on the go -- the sleeved bib by Bumkins. It folds up into nothing, wipes clean, comes in cute patterns, and because of the elastic cuff, somehow those bib sleeves protected her clothing her all the way from infant into toddlerhood.
Travel utensils: So most of the time, we just asked the restaurant for a small coffee spoon, but once my daughter started to get comfortable with knife and fork, it was helpful to have ones that were easy for her to negotiate. I like stainless steel eating surfaces, even if the handles are not, to get them used to "real" flatware. Oxo does some nice ones.
Books: For me this usually all about size and weight over content, but when I'm being thoughtful about it Froggy Eats Out is great for reminding them about restaurant behavior, There's a Giraffe in My Soup is good for a laugh, and I love the idea of The Screaming Chef!
Other toys you love for mealtime: I do always have a pack of Nibble+squeak crayons in my purse for quiet coloring, and they work for all ages -- even adults appreciate some mealtime doodling! I also really like the Omy placemats and little coloring rolls. And I am a big fan of the Melissa and Doug Water Wow reveal pads, and the Tegu travel set.
iPad/iPhone apps: The phone/iPad is our last resort for a grumpy, uncooperative, possibly overtired child; there's no returning her to the meal after this comes out. But, if it allows us to linger over the end of the meal in peace, it is worth it! Just make sure the volume is off... Toca Kitchen is a fave for obvious reasons (Dr. Panda is another option), and we're also into Endless Alphabet.