An important part of our travel experience is dining in local restaurants and enjoying local food. The fact that we travel with our kids doesn't mean that we want to give that up and eat in uninteresting, poor-quality kid focused restaurants. Instead, we do some advance work to ensure that we have food experiences we can all enjoy. Here are my top tips for finding your own "kid friendly" restaurants when you travel.
We choose a couple of restaurants in (or near) tourist areas before we leave home and note them in our guidebook. While we leave our day-to-day schedule pretty open ended, it's nice to be able to navigate quickly to a good restaurant rather than searching desperately after everyone is already tired and irritable.
The Itiniaries in our Family Friendly Travel Guides feature printable maps with tourist attractions and excellent family friendly restaurants all ready for your adventures. Want an example? Check out this itinerary for A Half Day in Historic Rome With Kids
Start With the Great References
The first step to finding a great place to eat is to start with a guidebook or online reference that recommends great restaurants. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised at how many people start with a list that is geared towards kids and are disappointed that all the offerings are burger places, pizza places and chain restaurants. It's a little more work to start with a guide that's geared towards adults and then narrow it down to a kid friendly restaurant, but you will be rewarded with a better meal, and that's what counts. Of course all the recommendations on DeliciousBaby are for restaurants that serve excellent food and work well for families with kids. Check back for a list of my favorite resources (besides DeliciousBaby) for finding great food in a few days.
Look for Codewords That Mean "Kid Friendly"
Now that you're reading some great restaurant reviews, look for keywords that indicate the restaurant is kid friendly. Here are some tip offs: casual, outdoor seating (especially in countries where smoking is allowed), noisy, bustling, comfort food, local favorite, working person's, takeaway. Some guidebooks (Fodors for example) will note a few restaurants that are great for both adults and kids.
Cross Reference Your Top Choices
Once you've selected a few great sounding restaurants, search for them online and see where else they turn up (and what other reviewers have to say). You'll weed out restaurants that sweet talked themselves into a single guidebook or that have lost their touch.
Ask family, friends, your Twitter followers and anyone you know who has visited the destination recently. You'll be surprised to learn what detailed records some people keep of their favorite meals. Before we went to Spain, I sent email to a few expats living and blogging in Spain with their kids. Locals always seem to know about the coffee shop with a toy box in the corner or the cafe with a little patch of grass. They're also great references for finding playgrounds.
Check The Schedule
Dining hours vary from country to country (for example in Barcelona dinner is usually served at around 9pm, and many restaurants are closed until 7 or 8. Nobody will have a pleasant meal if your child is exhausted and famished before the meal begins, so make sure that your dream restaurant is open when you expect to be hungry.
Look for Ethnic Restaurants When we're traveling abroad, we're usually focused on enjoying the local cuisine, but when we're in the US and Canada, we think it's fun to seek out restaurants run by the local immigrant population. They tend to be set up for whole families to enjoy dining together. For example, I at my most mouthwatering fried chicken ever at Phnom Penh in Vancouver, BC. There's simply nothing like it in Seattle (our home town). Ethnic restaurants can be a great break too when you've gotten tired of the local food. In Paris, L'as du Fallafel serves the best Fallafel that even an Israeli would adore in a bustling, kid friendly restaurant.
Be Creative about Tailoring The Menu for Your Kids
If you are traveling to a country where you'll expect your kids to eat a lot of new foods, prepare a few typical items before you leave home and get your kids familiar with them. Once you arrive, you can usually build a kid-friendly meal out of just about any restaurant menu if you know what to look for. For example, our kids ate lots of Paella in Spain and Cassoulet in France.
Not sure what to expect? The DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and Lonely Planet's World Food Guides are both great resources with lots of pictures, and they'll help you learn what you'll see on local menus before you go.
Don't Eat In a Restaurant
Don't expect that your kids will be able to eat every meal at a restaurant. We typically eat breakfast in our hotel or rental apartment and often eat lunch at a park. Luckily, local markets are one of the best places to get a sense of what people eat in their homes. They're also a fun way for kids to explore the local food and pick out things they'll be willing to try (they might surprise you).
Visit the local market and pick up food for a picnic or takeaway items to cook in your vacation rental apartment. Paris, in particular, has a long healthy tradition of "traiteur" or "takeaway" shops selling upscale food that you can heat and serve at home.
Make Sure it Passes The Crowd Test
My dad's time honored rule for finding a great meal when we're out exploring is to look for the place with a huge crowd. He's right. Locals know what's good, and they're willing to wait in line for it. Even if you are eating outside of the busiest hours, there is often one restaurant or cafe that has more guests than the others.
What are your favorite tips for finding a family friendly restaurant when you travel? Tell us in comments.Related Links:
Does Travel With Kids = The McDonalds World Tour
Meals and Snacks on a Family Vacation
Spain Planning: Paella Success
Reader Questions: Eating With Kids In Paris
Picture of the Week: Baby's First Gelato... In Rome
Reader Questions: Milk in Spain and France