We were not having a very good food day.
Hotel breakfast (comped because we’d been woken at dawn by construction noise the day before) was a cold buffet of cereals, pastries, and steam table eggs (also fairly cold).
We’d been warned off eating at the American Museum of Natural History’s food court, but we couldn’t avoid it, so lunch, too many hours later, was grabbed quickly and bolted between our timed entries to the Big Dinosaurs exhibit and the planetarium show. Eli found a decent rice and bean taco and Tony and I split a veggie burger, while Ben somehow got away with only a fruit leather and sun chips. It hardly mattered — the museum is so amazing — and with more time maybe we could have done better, but we all just wanted to get back to the exhibits.
Several hours later, we finally emerged blinking into the light of Central Park. We let the kids fortify themselves from a snack cart — a banana, a hot pretzel — but then even that went sour; Ben liked his lime popsicle shots — basically a cup of popsicle gravel (see: saying yes to things on vacation) but Eli (who lately ignores his own preferences in favor of being just like his older brother) ate a couple spoonfuls and then abandoned his fluorescent snack.
Now, I can write off a meal or two, but I don’t really have it in me to shrug and say, “OK, I’ll just eat something delicious tomorrow.” It makes me too sad. Plus, of course, I feel some responsibility to my kids — not just that they eat healthy food (though admittedly I relax this on vacation) but good quality, tasty food. And this day wasn’t offering that. So dinner really needed to be something decent, maybe even something with a vegetable.
I wasn’t optimistic — we were in Central Park, planning to head down to Times Square and then west to the pier to take the boys on a Circle Line tour. We were in a part of Manhattan I don’t know at all, going to one I know less. I figured the boat would offer ballpark fare (hot dogs, popcorn and beer) and didn’t have high hopes for Times Square. I was wishing I could fill them up on hot dogs, roasted nuts, and pretzels, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the energy (or battery life in my phone) to explore mobile food apps. We were like pioneers.
Walking up 8th Avenue, though, we spotted Dean & Deluca in the ground floor of the New York Times building and got excited. But inside, they’d shut down the salad bar already and only had prepared sandwiches available; next door, at Schnippers Quality Kitchen, we found a place reminiscent of our local favorite, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher (aka Gott’s) and a menu listing seven or eight different, interesting tossed salads, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, even fish tacos and milkshakes. Somehow the boys skipped the milkshakes (it’s not like they can’t read), apparently sensing their own need, after their mediocre lunch, for something healthy and fresh. (Plus, they know we’re going to the Red Rooster soon). Ben ordered the Asian Chop Chop, a crunchy mix of Napa cabbage, edamame, snap peas, tofu, croutons and peanut dressing (he held the scallions and peppers) and Eli had a Caesar.
Tony ate an arugula and roasted tomato sandwich with fresh mozzarella, while I had a fabulous market salad of corn, avocado, beets, tomatoes, slivered almonds, chickpeas and croutons on arugula and chopped romaine, served with a nice piece of multigrain bread.
We augmented with freshly-baked cookies and a pack of rough cut potato chips and ate on the boat, our food day redeemed.
Like most families, our family’s road trips have usually meant packing a cooler and handing sandwiches and snacks over a shoulder into the back seat, stopping only for quick gas and bathroom breaks. Traveling with kids, you hesitate to break the rhythm of a trip; sure, sometimes when the kids were much younger we had to stop because someone was screaming or wet (or both) but more often the kids would get into a good groove with a book or a nap and we’d hate to break the spell. So we’d forge on, sometimes late into the night. But on our recent trip to Santa Barbara, a couple factors made the idea of road trip restaurant stops more appealing. We were spending a day longer in Santa Barbara than usual, and we were staying with family, cooking most of our meals together, so schedule + budget = meals on the road.
I have some fond memories of childhood road trip restaurant breaks. Most often, it was a stop, on the way to my grandparents’ house, at The Red Rooster (cheeseburger deluxe, fries and a root beer float); sometimes, I went with my grandfather when he drove my grandma to a weekend retreat, and we’d stop at Friendly’s along the way (fried clam roll for him, grilled cheese for me, shared fries and a chocolate fribble).
These days we’re keeping up The Red Rooster tradition in my family (happily, it’s about halfway between JFK and my parents’ house now) and our drive to Santa Barbara usually involves a quick stop at The Madonna Inn. The boys love the amazing grotto bathroom, and somehow manage to resist pieces of cake bigger than their heads in favor of a cookie or chocolate from the sweets counter. We get a treat, run around the parking lot for a few minutes, and then continue on our way.
This time, we stopped at the Madonna Inn for lunch. It’s an ornate room — floral carpet, red leather seats, pink cloth napkins, carved wooden walls — and the menu is enormous. The kids, a little overwhelmed, ordered breakfast for lunch and were perfectly happy; I ate an egg salad sandwich which tasted just fine. The service is lovely and the atmosphere — maybe from all that pink? — is really warm and friendly. It’s a kind of kitschy place but it made us all very happy, and we were on our way in under an hour, feeling much more relaxed than if we’d eaten in the car.
On our drive back home, Tony used TripAdvisor to find a restaurant in Paso Robles, Panolivo, which I discovered, later, is a favorite of a local writer friend (always nice to have that confirmation). The boys ate giant salads, Tony had an excellent house-made veggie burger and a glass of wine, I had salad and a delicious hummus plate. We talked and lingered and picked up pastry on the way out the door.
I’m sure we won’t always stop and sit down to eat when we’re making road trips, but, like our gradual move away from kid’s menus, this is a development that’s definitely improving our family food life.
When Lisa told me about her family’s road trip plans, I was envious (the sun! the stars! the Missions! the meals!) and then, instantly, dubious on the one point she was nervous about herself: the meals. Two weeks of restaurant meals. Forty-two restaurant meals. With two kids. At (among other places) several theme parks.
I wished her well and waited to hear the report.
Happily, the family survived well and Lisa’s writing about how to handle two solid weeks of restaurant meals with kids, covering everything from breakfast to theme park meals to the kids’ take on all of it. All of which has made me realize an exciting recent restaurant development in our family: we are saying goodbye to the kid’s menu.
Let me back up. We eat out a fair amount. Tony and I ate out regularly before we married (we both did growing up, too), and it was important to us to cultivate good restaurant habits in our kids. So we were strategic about it. Ben’s first restaurant meal, I have to admit, was at Chevy’s; he was about 7 weeks old and gazed at the balloons while I drank a margarita. Success! His first fancy restaurant meal, months later, was at Lulu, a place we chose partly for its delicious menu but also for its volume: we figured a crying baby wouldn’t be heard over the din. We needn’t have worried; he was old enough to sit in a high chair and gnaw happily on baguette, while we enjoyed several courses.
We continue to be thoughtful about eating out and follow the same practices as Lisa’s family. We eat out at fancy places to celebrate, sometimes, (both kids have eaten at plenty of places that don’t offer high chairs or kid’s menus) but more often we walk to one of the many local spots in the neighborhood where we can afford (both in terms of environment and price) to experiment. So if, as happened once when Ben was a toddler, there’s a meltdown between ordering and the food arriving, it’s no big deal to flag down the waiter and get dinner to go. Luckily, it’s been a long time since such an evening has gone awry; more often, we eat and chat and it feels quite a bit like home, just a little more special. But the kids’ preference, always, is to eat at home: it’s more relaxed, they don’t have to wait for their food, they like our cooking.
This summer, we’ve traveled a bit but managed — by booking hotel rooms with kitchenettes or staying with family — to keep the restaurant meals to a minimum (on our visit to Seattle this June, just the second restaurant night made Eli mournful). Tony researched spots that looked good — Italian and Asian restaurants tend to offer a good variety for our choosy, vegetarian kids — and we’ve been eating well. I’ve been remembering the mom I used to be, who would sweep the fragile glassware into the middle of the table, far from a toddler’s grasping reach, or who would set the high chair far from the tempting tablecloth. I’m grateful for older kids who (mostly) sit politely and use the kid’s menu now (mostly) just for drawing.
Kid’s menus certainly offer a welcome landing spot, a sign — as surely as highchairs and lidded cups — that the restaurant welcomes kids, and we’ve been grateful for them. But honestly, the kid’s menu has never offered a great selection for my kids; of the standard burger-fish sticks-chicken fingers-pizza-pasta quintet, most are either too meaty or too cheesy for my kids. So we have always looked beyond it, and are now really moving away from it. Eli will just eat a big salad (particularly Caesar, the gateway salad) if there’s nothing else on the menu he likes, though still often augments with pasta or grilled cheese. Ben, however, is making some new choices. Recently at our favorite local place, he passed up his beloved pasta “shoulders” (a toddler malapropism of his we have all adopted) in favor of a new dish: soba with grilled tofu and greens. It’s the kind of dish he eats all the time at home but would never order out. He’s also not shy about ordering exactly what he wants. He’ll scan the menu and assemble himself a meal from side dishes, he’ll order a salad without that cheese or with that other salad’s dressing (I know special orders can be a nightmare for a kitchen staff, and we always check that they don’t mind). At our most recent meal out, I noted how the water goblets stood a little unsteadily on thick placemats atop the marble table, turned down the waiter’s offer of plastic, lidded kid’s cups, relaxed and ordered a glass of wine. They are growing up and I am enjoying it.
We’ve just returned from our annual family vacation, which this year involved a long an epic road trip from the Bay Area to San Diego, one of the most southern parts of our state. Our initial destination was ComicCon in San Diego, which was a blast & included a preview of the upcoming Phineas and Ferb Movie,which is terrfic, if you like that sort of thing, which we do. But the trip quickly morphed into a week at the Coronado beach, a 3-day visit at Disneyland, an excursion to Hearst Castle, and something Caroline came to call Mission-polooza: a visit to every California mission between our home and our destination. I will not be writing about that part of the trip here. (You can check my personal blog for follow-up and fallout on that score.) But what is of interest to LTE readers is that for the first time ever, we stayed in hotels for the duration of our trip, which was a new experience for us.
For me, this meant a lot things: no cleaning, no sweeping, no making beds, no tidying up at the end of the day. Of course it also meant no marketing and no cooking. No farmers market. No prep. No meal planning. Honestly, it was a terrific break, but I was nervous about many meal-related things including:
- Getting the kids ready and out of the hotel for dinner. Every night.
- Table manners
- Stamina–the day in, day out energy it takes to dine in restaurants
- Finding enough variety in the food to keep us feeling energetic and healthy
- Theme park food
We were right to worry about some of these things. Variety, for instance: we eat so much seasonal produce that by the end Finn was picking the cucumbers out of his dad’s water in search of fresh vegetables. And I may never again eat another Caesar salad, because at many of the theme parks we visited, this is the closest thing you can get to fresh vegetables. I also discovered that left to their own devices and an unstoppable tidal wave of kids’ menus, even my accommodating and not-picky eaters will choose chicken tenders or pizza or burgers. My daughter, who never ate a chicken finger in her life ordered these twice in our last three days. It’s true she got the side of fruit salad, too, but it just goes to show the deeply subconscious appeal of the kids’ menu–even for a kid who doesn’t really eat like a kid. And finally, it is costly to eat out all the time, so we were right to budget high for this part of our vacation.
But other things proved not to be problems. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. In some sense, we’ve been training our kids from the time they were toddlers to eat out in restaurants, so the stamina, the manners, the getting ready, all these things were taken in stride. It surprised us. We stuck to our tried and true rules, and they worked for us through many different kinds of meals: in a car, at a pool, at a taqueria, in a fancy restaurant, in a lodge….Frankly, it was an enormous relief because in the weeks leading up to the trip we were not at all sure that the kids would make it through every meal without incident. But they did, and at the last meal, a lovely little place in Carmel, we celebrated and we toasted them. While they ate pizza and a burger.
Up next: managing breakfast on the road.