Where and How to Dine Out Without the Whine

Dinner out is one of the great social inventions of modern times. You’re offered a variety of culinary options, leisurely conversation with your spouse or friends, and time to linger over dessert or coffee. No need to cook and no dishes to do. Once you have kids, however, dining out can resemble a relay race more than a leisurely stroll. Forget about the conversation. Forget about being leisurely.

But dining out with kids doesn’t have to include jumping hurdles and skidding to the finish line. With more families in the Triangle area come more restaurant choices that make it possible for everyone to have a tasty meal with special touches that put a child-friendly spin on dining out.

Mix new fun with old standbys

Just about everyone who has kids loves Italian restaurants, and why not? Pizza is a tried-and-true standby that kids can’t seem to get enough of – and many parents love, too. Add spaghetti, ravioli, soup and garlic bread, and you have the makings for a happy, satisfied family. Not only are many of the area’s Italian restaurants welcoming to families, several gems offer kids a little something special.

Walk into Georgina’s Italian Pizzeria and Restaurant in Morrisville and you’ll enjoy delicious homemade Italian specialties including pizza, pasta and dishes like chicken marsala. A children’s menu includes pizza, pasta and more. After the kids grow tired of the coloring pages, Georgina’s offers small balls of pizza dough the kids can play with so they stay in their seats for a little while longer while you finish your meal.

The Point, in Raleigh’s Five Points area, may not be exclusively Italian, but it takes the family pizza restaurant concept one step further. Order a pizza from the kids’ menu, and your children get a hand in making the pie themselves.

The chef lays out the requested ingredients on the counter by the pizza oven, and the kids get to spread their own sauce, sprinkle their own cheese and pile on the toppings any way they like. Then the chef whisks it into a brick oven to bake to a delicious golden brown. And on Tuesdays between 5 and 7 p.m., kids eat free! With the Point’s extensive menu ranging from fried oysters to burgers to salads and pasta dishes, there’s something to please everyone’s palate.

Relying on the favorites

Breakfast anytime? Breakfast for lunch or dinner can be fun for kids, and Elmo’s Diner in Durham and Chapel Hill wants to keep it that way. With a full menu for children featuring some of the old standbys (spaghetti with meatballs, chicken fingers), there are also plenty of breakfast options on the kids’ menu.

If your kids prefer delicious Belgian waffles, order from the adult menu for just a little bit more. A large selection of sides includes fruit, cinnamon apples or the veggie of the day. The bustling atmosphere makes Elmo’s perfect for kids, and the coloring pages and crayons will keep them in their seats for at least part of the meal. After your meal, the staff may even hang your child’s artwork on the wall.

Step into Mama Dip’s, also in Chapel Hill, and you’re transported back into the old days of country cookin’ and comfort food. These are flavors you may have grown up with but your kids are only exposed to when they eat at Grandma’s. Once they get a taste, they’ll be smitten with the home-baked bread and locally grown produce. This gives families a taste fresh from the garden or oven.

Mama Dip recently hosted 100 second-graders to give them a hands-on lesson in biscuit-making. Many of them had never had homemade biscuits, let alone made their own. “When kids come here, they just eat what’s served, vegetables and all,” Mama Dip says. With fried chicken, hush puppies and a wide variety of sides, kids and grownups alike will love the flavors reminiscent of days gone by.

Expanding palates

It’s never too early to start raising adventurous eaters. The right restaurant with the right atmosphere can help. Raleigh resident Sam Madison loves to take his 6-year-old daughter, Lucie, to Sushi Tsune on Hillsborough Street.

“We have been going there since she was 2, and it is her favorite place to eat,” Madison says. “The staff is very accommodating and all know Lucie by name. The sushi chef is exceptional and greets everyone with a smile and a ‘hello.’ We like it so much we had her sixth birthday party there along with the happy birthday song sung by the staff!” So in the right place with a friendly staff, even raw fish can tantalize a 6-year-old’s palette.

As kids get older, encourage them to be more adventurous in their food choices by sharing an entree with them. Parents can save a few bucks while introducing their children to a wider variety of tastes. Quite often, it means a healthier meal as well. An entrée of baked chicken, a baked potato or rice, and broccoli is going to be much healthier than the typical kids’ fare of chicken nuggets and fries.

As parents include children in more aspects of their lives, dining out with them becomes easier. But before trying a new restaurant with the kids, take the time to find out if it has child-friendly options and ask what it offers to help keep kids happy during the meal. A little planning can go a long way.

Michele Little and David Iverson are parents who love dining out. Check Carolina Parent’s list of Family Meal Deals in the Triangle.

What makes a restaurant family friendly?

Here are a few criteria that add up to an enjoyable experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Variety – Is the food good, with something for everyone? Kids can find beans, rice, noodles, soup or other child-friendly foods at most places. Try an ethnic restaurant for an unexpected adventure that exposes your child to a new culture as well as a few new things on his plate.

Service – Is the service efficient? Nothing makes dinner out more unpleasant than a long wait, especially if the kids are tired.

Health – Are there healthy menu options? Can you order a side of broccoli or get whole grains or low-fat options? Do they serve milk? If everything on the kids’ menu is fried, it’s not doing the kids justice. One major point of contention when eating with kids – either out or at home – is the Vegetable Issue.

Many kids’ menus rarely stray from the french fry in the veggie department. This is where parents need to get creative and perhaps a little demanding. Ask for alternatives such as a side of fruit or steamed or stir-fried vegetables. If enough people request healthier choices, restaurants will provide them – so be persistent.

Cleanliness – Are the bathrooms clean? How about changing facilities? We’ve all been in bathrooms that have no changing station and very little counter space, leaving us to change our baby on the floor. You’re better off going to your car – and driving away!

Affordability – Are there specials for children? While this is not a make-or-break item, every little bit helps. If you can eat somewhere that everyone can enjoy while the kids eat free (or close to it), then all the better. Look for Kids Eat Free or 99-cent nights at many local restaurants. Also visit the Family Meal Deals section of www.carolinaparent.com for regularly updated listings.

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