Forget chicken nuggets. The kids will have the foie gras.
Really. "We had one child who ate foie gras when she was three," said Orla Murphy-LaScola, who with her husband Michael owns and operates American Seasons on Nantucket off the Coast of Massachusetts, which is known for its creative dishes using local ingredients. "We rarely get asked for plain pasta," she said, adding they don't even have a children's menu, though they'll prepare simpler dishes (no sauce, please!) if asked.
"A lot more families are ordering off the regular menu than they used to," observes award-winning chef and cookbook author Peter Davis, who oversees Henrietta's Table in Cambridge's Harvard Square, where kids love rubbing the big sculpture of Henrietta the Pig and parents love the unpretentious atmosphere and the fact that they can order delicious organic roast chicken for the kids to share.
In trendy New York, children eat up the homemade pasta Chef Manuel Trevino is known for that draws downtown hipsters and A-listers to Travertine.
Hotel restaurants are getting into the act. Loews Hotels launched an "Adopt- a-Carrot" program for kids through Labor Day that is an extension of their new "Adopt-a-Farmer" program supporting partnerships with local growers and purveyors. Adopt-a-Carrot is designed to teach young restaurant goers to eat healthy with innovative carrot recipes and a take-home bag of seeds, thanks to Burpee. Maybe they could feature a different veggie every month!
On a steamy Friday night in Washington, D.C.'s trendy Firefly, families with young kids enjoyed the farm-to-table entrees as much as the young policy wonks with their BlackBerrys and iPhones on the table. The kids especially loved the floor-to-ceiling "firefly tree," hung with lanterns and lit by candles. Chef Danny Dornick, himself the father of two young kids, says while parents dine on braised lamb or fish and vegetables, depending on the season, he strives to give even his youngest diners "real food" whether it is homemade mac and cheese, baby shrimp, PB&J and banana on multigrain bread, celery and carrot sticks, or a fruit plate.
That should make Michelle Obama happy. Not only has she made the fight against childhood obesity her prime effort as first lady—the federal government reports childhood obesity has almost tripled in the last 30 years to almost 20 percent—but she has kicked off a "Chefs Move to Schools" program, aiming to pair culinary experts with a specific public school to teach students about nutrition and the importance of eating balanced meals.
Sure foie gras is high in fat. So is chocolate cake. But there's no better time than vacation to introduce kids to new foods, especially those that might come from the part of the country (or world) that you are visiting. Maybe that includes the incredibly popular Butter Beer at Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where parents and kids wait in long lines to sample the brew that tastes kind of like cream soda with caramel. Maybe it's frog legs in France. I'll never forget the trip to France when my daughter, who was 11 at the time, and her best friend, who was traveling with us, made it a contest to order the most outrageous (at least to them) items on the menu.
"It's all about exposure," suggests Chef Davis. "Make it interesting for the kids to try new stuff but don't force them. Give them a bite rather than a plate full and say they have to eat it!"
I've found that that's especially easy on cruise ships or at all-inclusive resorts because your kids can try anything—or eat three steaks or four lobster tails—without you paying extra.
Travel, after all, takes us all out of our comfort zone and teaches us how well we can navigate in unfamiliar turf. Your nephew who "hates fish" may develop a passion for salmon and halibut when he sees it caught and cooked in Alaska—as my nephew did last summer.
Wherever you are going, make food—eating healthy, eating local—part of the equation. Tour a lobster boat in Maine, a farm in the Midwest or a farmer's market in San Francisco. I love that in Orlando, Florida, families dining at Primo the JW Marriott's contemporary Italian restaurant can visit the onsite organic garden where daily chefs pick vegetables and herb the kids might find in their pizza or pasta.
"I like the adventure of trying different types of cuisine through my son's eyes and seeing them practice and hone their manners and develop their sense of appropriate public behaviors," says Denver chef Frank Bonanno who oversees four restaurants. His tip: Do something active before and after the meal—a bike ride, a playground, a hike to a great breakfast spot.
And be mindful of your neighboring diners, suggests American Season's Murphy-LaScola. Be prepared with activities to keep them busy (iPhone apps come in especially handy), or take a walk if your child is noisy or can't sit still.
At Firefly Danny Bortnick offers each child a cookie in the shape of a boy or girl to decorate while they are waiting—then he bakes it and presents it to them for dessert. "Some of them make pretty intricate designs," he says, adding that the more he can make his restaurant kid-friendly, the more he can encourage parents to introduce kids to more than fast food. "And the more parents do it, the better the kids will behave."
"I know dining with children can be tricky, adds Chef Bonanno, "But it's become such a part of our family culture—the substance of which memories are made."
As long as you don't argue with the kids about which dessert to split.
What are some of your favorite spots for getting a taste of the local flavor? Share your top picks by adding a comment below!