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Eating out with Young Children - Practical Advice for Parents (as well as Waiters, Chefs, and Restaurateurs), November  17, 2005  I love to eat out at restaurants. Mostly because at the good places, they cook way way better than I can. But it's more than that. I love the atmosphere. I love the social experience - it's fun to talk to the people at the table without any distractions. Food just keeps getting placed in front of you and you can focus on eating it and chatting with your partners in this particular meal. And for some people, that's enough. But for me, I also had this nagging urge to procreate. Ultimately, Debbie and I enjoy each others' company and figure that more people just like us in the world can't be a bad thing. And in fact, we've long believed that going out to eat with friends, and having kids ultimately are aligned goals. Since they'll be our kids, they'll enjoy going out to dinner too... with us. We had it all planned out. Of course, as any parent knows, things are not that simple.

For the first few months of our first child we actually thought things were going to be a breeze. During that time the kids mostly sleep. So we could even go out for fancy meals. The kid would sleep through all 12 courses. And if a little food was needed the leisurely pace of the meal afforded many opportunities for a quick feeding. Sometime before their first birthday they decide that sitting still for a couple of hours is no longer fun. And that's when your eating out days can be over.

I won't even get into the fact that my big ideas about what open-minded eaters my kids would be was shattered in my early days as a parent. That's a topic for another day. So after I realized that my kids were not going to organically come up with the desire to go out all the time for sushi, dim sum, and pho I had to come up with plan B. And in fact I'd kind of figured that it would be years before my kids started liking a broader range of food. Going out to dinner with them became more to meet my need to go out to dinner more often than to somehow address my desire to see them broaden their horizons. That's where it began. I like spending time with the kids, and I like to go out to dinner. Somehow we'll need to find a way to go out with them.

Of course when people think about taking little kids out for a meal they immediately think of the "panoply" of yucky fast food and chain options. The iconic representative of this array is the worst of the bunch - Chuck E. Cheese. The problem of course is that a) if the parents want to eat something decent, and b) if the parents don't want to constantly fill their kids with crap, then all the restaurants that optimize for children are not real options. As a parent who likely is short on time, it's a constant battle to not give in to the solutions that are designed for kids. You have to resist, and you have to be creative. To that end, over the past few months we appear to have struck upon a formula for solving this problem and today I'll share it with you.

1. Your real enemy in getting a decent meal is not your child, it's the clock. The moment you walk into a restaurant with your children an invisible timer starts ticking. You can't see this timer so you have no idea how much time you have left until it rings. But trust me, it will go off. And when it does, your child will become unmanageable and you will have to leave the restaurant. If you've done relatively well you may only miss your dessert. If you've done poorly you'll be leaving just as the first appetizers are being brought to your table.

2. Pick somewhere close. Since every minute counts, don't take your kids halfway across town to the place you want to eat. Even though I do not think you should not limit yourself to places that optimize around kids and server horrible food, there are some constraints you're going to have if you're going to make this work. Your best bet is to not have to drive more than 10-15 minutes. If that doesn't work see if you can drive from another location where everyone will be - grandparents' house, school, etc.

3. Pick somewhere good. The whole point of this effort is for you to get a decent meal. So pick somewhere you'll actually enjoy. To make this work you're going to have to be alert, so you may as well get the payoff of the decent meal when you pull it off.

4. Find a place with lots of small dishes. Never mind that small dishes are almost always better in terms of quality, small dishes can typically be prepared quickly. They have fewer components and can come out of the kitchen in a hurry. Think sushi, dim sum, tapas, or just restaurants with lots of appetizers.

5. Pick a restaurant run by people who are in it for the long haul. This is good advice in any case. Here's the deal. If you're going to find a restaurant with great food and train them in how to make it so you can eat there with kids, you want a waitstaff and a kitchen that are flexible, and care about retaining you as a regular customer. Smaller restaurants, non-chains, and ones that are family run all good candidates. Once you find a waiter who really knows how to make the meal work, you want them to be your waiter every time. People who are just there to pick up a check aren't invested in making your meal a positive experience. Ethnic restaurants are usually good candidates in this regard.

6. Go early. The restaurant is emptier. The staff can pay more attention to you. The kitchen can turn your food around faster. There are fewer people for your kids to bother. Your kids likely eat dinner early anyway. This is a no brainer, but even I forget it sometimes.

7. Compress the meal. Up until now your work has all been about the creation of an environment in which it's likely that you'll get a good meal for you and your kids. That said, this piece of advice may be the single most important, because if you don't execute well, all your planning will have been for naught. As I've said before, every second counts. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that you should be done ordering before your butt hits your chair. In actuality, the process is to plant your order with the waiter or waitress on their first visit to your table. Yes, even if they have just shown up to give you a menu. DO NOT LET THEM LEAVE YOUR TABLE UNTIL YOU ORDER. You can't afford to wait. If that waiter leaves your table it could be minutes until they get back. You should be thinking about what to order during the drive over. Before you place your order explain why you're acting  so oddly to the waiter. Usually by telling them about the invisible timer you can get them to realize the challenge. This last point is very very important. Make sure to tell the waiter that he/she should have the kitchen make all the food immediately and bring it out as soon as its ready. Restaurants, waiters, and kitchens all work very hard to time your meal flawlessly. Things come out in waves perfectly timed. This is exactly what you don't want. But make sure the waiter really understands what you're saying. You don't care about the order in which the food comes out. You just want it all as soon as possible. The best waiters will be back with a couple of the first items that are easy to prepare or already prepared in the kitchen (like a bowl of steamed rice) in 2 minutes. Every minute your kids are sitting there without food in front of them they're getting nutty.

8. Make your own kids' menu. I'm going to claim that in this unenlightened age just about any restaurant that has an official kids' menu does not qualify as "good" according to rule #3 above. Thai restaurants have chicken satay, steamed rice, and spring rolls. Mexican restaurants have chips and salsa and tacos. Japanese restaurants have steamed rice, egg sushi, shrimp sushi, tempura, and little cubes of tofu they usually put in miso soup. Guess what. My kids LOVE tofu. Who would have thought. And now every time we go out I try to get them to eat something new. It's typically a marketing challenge with them. Pick something you know they'll love, and give it a name they can get behind. The other day we called California Rolls - "Children's Rainbow Sushi". It's colorful, and as you can tell from the name - It's for children! Maybe my kids aren't that bright but this worked. Don't underestimate what your kid might eat with the proper marketing from you.

9. When the last dish arrives at the table pay for the meal. It doesn't matter if you're done. You want the financial transaction at the end of the meal to happen well before your kids are ready to go. This way the moment the timer goes off, you're already done. You can grab your jackets and go. If you're cutting it close and not worried about the accuracy of the bill, you can "ask" for the bill by just handing the waiter your credit card. That cuts several minutes out of the entire process.

10. Tip big. I try to generally tip 20% at a meal without kids. I ratchet up to at least 25% for one of these blitzkrieg meals. If your waiter isn't super attentive and understanding of the challenge you are screwed. And if you can find a waiter who knows how to make this exercise work you want to cherish them, reward the, and rely on them time and time again. They have a hard enough job as it is. If they're willing to make this kind of meal work, they deserve every bit of an oversized tip. And though it may seem excessive, compare the extra 5-10% tip to what it would have cost you to hire a babysitter for the evening.

These are ten simple rules for giving yourself a shot at eating a good meal with your kids. But those on the other side of the equation can also do their part.

  • Waiters. Understand the process above. Recognize parents who are trying to employ it. And especially recognize parents who don't know how to make their meal enjoyable. You can educate them on how to make it work.
  • Chefs. I would NEVER ask you to put some crappy hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets on your menu just for kids. (Fantastic hamburgers and hot dogs would be another matter entirely.) That said, there's no reason why you can't have a few options for kids that are dishes you can be proud of. You don't even have to put them on the menu, just let the waitstaff know to offer those options to kids who show up.
  • Restaurateurs. Just because people have kids doesn't mean they like to eat garbage. Addressing the needs of parents who don't want to take their kids to McDonald's but still want to eat out  want great food - not great relative to McDonald's (think CPK and other "upscale casual concepts" or whatever they are called) but truly GREAT food crafted with love and care. It may be as simple as setting up a few toys in a quiet discreet corner of the restaurant and letting people know that kids are welcome. You may be shocked at what you find. I think most businesses think that in order to welcome kids into their establishment they need to be kid-focused  In fact, I think most parents would prefer just an establishment that's adult-focused, but kid-savvy. (And if you want to go all out, a little novelty never hurts. My son goes nuts for the sushi place with the conveyor belt. If only their sushi was high quality we'd have a place that both he AND I love.)

This may seem like a lot of work. And it's certainly not for the faint of heart. That said, I used to be VERY stressed going out to dinner with the kids as I knew it would always end poorly. Now, even though it's a little bit of effort, I am much less stressed. And one week at a time we're finding more and more restaurants that can accommodate this type of meal. And the beauty is that not only will you end up feeling like you haven't completely sacrificed your ability to eat out for your kids, but your kids will start to learn how to eat out themselves. And someday down the road going out to eat with your children may be a shared positive experience enjoying great food together. I couldn't help but smile tonight when my kids complained that we were eating Thai food instead of sushi. A couple of years ago when all they ate was peanut butter at home this is a problem I would have begged to have.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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