Lake Como, 12:45pm. Our friendly young waitress winks at the kids as she places a plate of chocolates and lollipops in front of them. “Signora, your children have been so good. Complimenti!” It’s our second day in Italy and we’ve just finished devouring four pizzas, a salad and gelati after a morning where we walked all of Bellagio’s 762 steep laneways (I may have made that up).
We’ve deliberately chosen this pizzeria, tucked away up a steep flight of stairs away from the prying eyes of patrons at the bustling waterfront restaurants. Pleasingly, our fellow diners seem to consist of both foreign tourists and Italians, including a group of workers from the local ferry terminal. Always a good sign. A busy restaurant is another good omen – the more background noise the better!
We’re pleased with our choice. Like many Italian restaurants, grissini (bread sticks) are already on the table when we arrive, so hungry tummies are immediately placated. Bread rolls arrive soon after. We request for the kids’ pizzas to come first, and they do. During our short wait, we talk about the highlights of our day so far, and play 243 games of I-Spy (although it gets a bit complicated with Mr 3 who thinks everything starts with ‘N’!). The kids attack their pizzas with relish, pick at the side salads, and enjoy their sweets as my husband and I fortify ourselves with espresso. We’ve even managed a little adult conversation!
Our kids are only three, four, and six, so any restaurant experience that goes smoothly feels like a major achievement. Outside, the kids run up and down the steps while my husband and I give each other a high-five. We can do this! For the rest of the trip, we eat out at least once a day, sometimes twice. On one occasion our son falls asleep at the dinner table (almost face-planting into his pizza!), and we do hear some whining, but overall the kids behave better than I could have dared hope.
I’m not going to lie, eating out hasn’t always been like this. In our travels we’ve had our fair share of mishaps and fraught meals – spilt drinks, broken glassware, tetchy toddlers – but we’ve been working on it. I firmly believe in taking kids to restaurants from a young age: train them up! It’s the only way to learn.
Eating out with kids when travelling can be done. Here are my top tips:
1. Practise before you go
Choose a few family-friendly restaurants in your area (pizzerias, sushi and Chinese restaurants are my favourites) and visit them as often as you can. Chat with your kids about what’s on the menu, how to order and use manners, and explain the table settings. Restaurants with open kitchens and a novelty factor (think lazy susans or sushi trains) also provide an excellent talking point for kids. Or try and find a restaurant featuring the cuisine of the country you’ll be visiting. Another thing my kids love to do is play restaurants at home – write menus, set up a pretend cafe, or have one of your children be the waiter and take orders at dinnertime.
2. Do your research
Before you go, search for your destination on the net and see what comes up (“family-friendly restaurants”, “eating out with kids in” or “eat like a local in” are good search terms to start with). Although I’ve found that any recommendations on sites like Trip Advisor make restaurants overly popular, there are often blogs or magazine features that mention options for eating out with kids. Or join the cool kids and search Instagram hashtags like #citynamefood or #citynameeeats. Restaurant websites can also be used to suss out in advance whether they take bookings or offer kids’ meals. If you’re in Europe, consider heading to the local markets for light meals on the run, and check to see if there are local food festivals that might be worth a visit.
3. Be prepared
The holy grail of family-friendly restaurants is one that has crayons and colouring-in pages. Do a happy dance if you happen upon one of these. It’s a complete lottery, so as a back-up I always carry a few toys amid the detritus of my handbag. A notebook, pencils, a few small cars and figurines are usually all it takes. When we’re feeling really enthusiastic, my husband and I encourage the kids to share the best and worst parts of the day, or we talk about the people and happenings around us.
4. Pick your times
You know your kids and what they’re up for. Dinners at night might be too hard with small children, so eat out at lunchtime instead. Or it might suit to take a picnic for lunch, have a siesta and then head out in the evening. Be aware of the restaurant culture in your destination – in Australia and the US you can often make an early dinner booking for 5.30pm, while in European countries like Italy and Spain many places don’t even open until 7, 8 or even 9pm!
5. Head outdoors
My extensive research has shown that eating alfresco with your beloved mini cyclones is much more relaxing than being cooped up in a corner inside. In particular, I’m thinking of hawker centres in Asia, open-air markets, or cafes in European squares, where there’s more of a relaxed atmosphere and you can watch the world go by. If you’re really lucky there’ll be space for your kids to stretch their legs, or jump in the local fountain as my kids did in Germany last month – see below.
6. Choose your cuisine
If you’ve choosing between a few restaurant options, think about which cuisines lend themselves to family-friendly dining. As I mentioned above, Italian and Chinese are two that I like because they’re often bustling, noisy places. And show me a kid who doesn’t like pizza?! In Europe, the variety of cuisines might be more limited (in Italy, for example, you mostly find Italian restaurants), but there are usually plenty of casual cafes that fit the bill .
7. Don’t dismiss the touristy places
While I must admit that the food snob in me hates the thought of dining in a mega-touristy restaurant, sometimes with kids you have to take the safe option. When in a foreign country, a restaurant with an English menu and a few familiar dishes might be just the thing you need after a day of sight-seeing. They might also be open at more family-friendly hours, as discovered by my friend who recently travelled to Spain.
8. Get the kids’ meals first
Kids + waiting = whinging and complaining. Ask nicely for the kids’ meals to be served first and hopefully you’ll avert any major tantrums or meltdowns.
9. Don’t stress about what they’re eating
Although I try to pick restaurants that I think my kids will like, I’m always amazed by their ability to reject the most delicious-looking new food. There have been occasions where one of my kids has consumed only bread, rice or grissini in a meal. You can’t always win. As I heard one travel writer recently say when describing her family trip to India, “My daughter has proven that it is possible to live on pappadums and rice for two weeks!”.
10. A little bribery never goes astray
I know my kids will do just about anything for an ice-cream, and now that they’re all at a bribe-able age this is a tactic I’ve employed regularly. “Keep your hands to yourself!” “Sit still!” and “Stop playing with the salt and pepper!” have so much more impact when followed by “…or you won’t get dessert!” Parent of the year right here, I know.