Recently I was asked by a blog reader if I had any tips for eating out with kids. In particular, she wanted to know how we find decent kid-friendly vegan options at restaurants for our vegan from birth toddler when we eat out.
So today I decided to write down a few tips that have helped us immensely in keeping our daughter’s nutrition up and our stress levels down when we go out to eat.
Our family goes out to eat about 2-3 times a month, usually when we’re out and about on weekends. Our 2 year old daughter baby J has been joining us since she was only a few weeks old.
When we started introducing solid foods at 6 months, for a while she mostly ate foods I specifically made for her – see my vegan baby food recipes. When we went out to eat, I would pack some tofu scramble or polenta cubes, and give them to her at the restaurant.
By the time baby J became proficient (and showed interest) in eating the same type of foods we did, she was quite comfortable in the restaurant environment.
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I don’t know if Rob and I are geniuses of parenting or if we just lucked out with her, but baby J truly enjoys going out to eat. We get way more compliments about how well-behaved she is at restaurants than sorry looks when she occasionally throws a tantrum.
The fact that baby J is vegan (and has been since birth) doesn’t make it that much harder to find foods for her when we eat out.
In fact, it can be helpful at times because we have no choice but to order more nutritious options like à la carte veggie side dishes instead of foods like cheese pizza or chicken fingers from the traditional kids’ menu.
See also: A sample vegan menu of what baby J eats on an average day, including meals and snacks.
While going out to eat with our daughter brings its own challenges, here are a few tips that have helped us make this experience enjoyable for the whole family.
How to Make Eating Out with Vegan Kids Enjoyable and Healthy
1. Think outside the box when choosing a place to eat.
Too often I hear parents say that the main reason for not eating out with their kids more often is the fact that there aren’t any vegan restaurants in their area.
The truth is, sometimes we can get a decent (or even great) vegan meal at places that aren’t considered to be restaurants per se. Example: a hot bar or a well-stocked deli at a grocery store.
One of our family’s favorite place for lunch when we’re out and about is the hot bar at Whole Foods. We love it because each of us can get exactly what they want.
My husband usually gets a deli sandwich with Field Roast deli slices, and I get a hot bowl of things like tofu, rice, potatoes, falafel patties, roasted vegetables, etc., then share it with baby J. The falafel patties and potatoes are always a hit with her.
Bonus: Whole Foods offers a free piece of fresh fruit for kids under the age of 12. Yay to all the nutritious options!
Baby J eating lunch at a vegan restaurant in San Diego
2. Go out when your child is least likely to be cranky.
No one loves it when their kid throws a major tantrum as soon as they get to a restaurant. To reduce the chances of that happening, go out during the times of day when it’s least likely to happen – think after a nap, not right before.
If that’s not possible – like if you’ve been invited to dinner with friends or relatives at an inconvenient time – it doesn’t mean that your outing will be a disaster.
Ask for your child’s meal to arrive as soon as it’s ready (no need to wait for the other entrees to be done). Offer a mild distraction while you’re waiting for food to arrive – draw with crayons if the restaurant offers them, or take a walk around the room.
If all else fails, here are a few more tips for dealing with tantrums at restaurants by Momtastic.
3. Check the menu before you go.
The rule of thumb is, always call the restaurant or check their menu online in advance to see if they offer vegan options, or if they can put together something off the menu for you and your vegan kids.
Good news: more and more non-vegan restaurants are embracing the demand for vegan options these days.
Here’s a few chain restaurants that have vegan-friendly food options for kids, but you often have to get creative to order them:
1. Chipotle – offers one of the healthiest kids’ meals among all not specifically vegan restaurants. The kids’ menu has a BUild Your Own option that includes soft or crunchy tortillas, guacamole or sofritas, and rice and beans. The meal comes with fuit or a small bag of tortilla chips, plus a box of apple juice or soft drink.
2. Taco Bell – this fast food chain now has an entire menu section devoted to vegetarian options, and a lot of them can be made vegan. Kids will enjoy soft tacos with refried beans or black beans instead of beef, made fresco-style. Bean burrito fresco-style and cheesy fiesta potatoes ordered plain (no cheese, no sour cream) are also good options. Cinnamon twists are vegan too!
3. Burger King – this fast food chain is probably not the first thing that popped out on your mind when thinking about vegan-friendly restaurants. However, in addition to their Impossible Whopper (ordered without mayo) that might be too big for kids, they have a number of other accidentally vegan menu items likePB&J Jamwich off the kids menu, applesauce, hash browns, French fries, garden salad. The company is even considering adding a mini-Impossible Whopper to the kids menu!
4. Subway – a wholesome kids’ meal can be made with a Veggie Delight sandwich made on Italian or sourdough bread with various veggie toppings and guacamole (if available). Kids’ meal also includes apple slices or appleasuce, plus fruit juice or soda.
5. Olive Garden – the famous breadsticks and minestrone soup are accidentally vegan. Plus, you can order any type of pasta tossed with marinara sauce and veggies of your choice. They can even bring you French fries by request.
6. Ruby Tuesday – kids’ menu offers tomato basil pasta (order with no cheese), and buttery pasta (some locations carry vegan margarine that can be used instead of butter). If your kids are ok with salad, there are plenty of plant-based options in the unlimited salad bar, but the only vegan dressing is balsamic vinaigrette.
7. Mellow Mushroom – this family-friendly pizza chain in the Southeastern US can veganize their pies with tofu, tempeh, and Follow Your Heart cheese. Got a pizza lover in your family? Take them there!
8. MOD Pizza – another vegan-friendly pizza chain where every family member can order their own pizza. Vegan options include vegan crust, vegan red sauce, and Daiya cheese – plus lots of veggies.
For more vegan-friendly chain restaurants, check out this restaurant list compiled by PETA.
If you live or are planning a trip to San Diego with your kids, check out my post with 10+ vegan restaurants in San Diego where we’ve successfully ordered kids’ meals for baby J during a recent vacation.
Privately owned restaurants can be even better for finding vegan options: usually they don’t have rigid rules that make them serve only what’s on the menu.
One of our favorite restaurants in our area always makes two different vegan dishes for me and my husband, both of them off the menu. We share both with our toddler, but she usually favors whichever dish has noodles.
Also see: my daughter’s favorite kid friendly vegan recipes from the blog.
4. Go beyond the kids’ menu.
It’s nice when a restaurant has clearly marked vegan options on their kids’ menu. However, all too often we end up in places where a vegan kids’ meal option is, well, not an option 🙂 Thankfully, not all is lost!
One option is to put together a meal à la carte from side dishes like potatoes, steamed veggies, soup (if a vegan-friendly option is available), etc.
Another option (though usually more expensive) is to order a vegan-friendly appetizer or an extra entree from the “grown up menu”, and share the whole meal family-style. The leftovers can always be packed for a later snack.
The third option is to do a combination of both: share the “grown up” entrees with your child, plus order an extra side dish that they are likely to eat.
Baby J eating a burrito more or less successfully for the first time ever in Leavenworth, WA
5. Bring familiar dining accessories from home – bib, plate, etc.
Familiarity can be a comforting thing for your child in a big, noisy room of a restaurant. That’s one of the reasons we always pack these silicone bibs and a silicone dish similar to this one on Amazon that our 2 year old loves and uses at mealtimes at home.
These dining accessories from home help baby J stay focused on her meals, which in turn helps her eat better.
An obvious bonus: these mealtime accessories make for an easier cleanup at the end of the meal, plus her clothes stay cleaner. She always gets comments about how cute she looks in her bib when we go out to eat.
Also see: 40 vegan snacks for kids that even picky eaters will love.
6. Order ‘tried and true’ foods, but don’t be afraid to venture out.
Yes, we’ve all participated in the tug-of-war contest of trying to get our kids to eat something new. For this reason, it makes sense to order ‘tried and true’ vegan foods for our kids at restaurants. Yes, it may be just potatoes and bread, but at least he’s fed, right?
At the same time, kids have a tendency to surprise us when we least expect it. So it may be worth a try to offer some food that you don’t usually make at home – who knows if maybe it would suddenly appeal to them?
That’s how we discovered that baby J likes asparagus and kalamata olives. (I know, what?!)
If this approach doesn’t work out and your child refuses new foods, please act neutrally. Making kids feel bad about not eating something healthy (or eating something unhealthy) can over time form a negative emotional response to food, and potentially lead to disordered eating in the future.
7. If all fails, just order fries.
Or plain pasta. Or whatever boring food your kids will definitely eat. Don’t stress about nutrition – if they don’t get much at this meal, they’ll catch up next time they eat at home.
There’s been too many times when all that baby J ate at a restaurant were French fries or potato wedges – either because that’s all she wanted, or because that was the only vegan and kid-friendly option on the menu.
We try to avoid talking about foods in the terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with baby J. With this approach, fries are just another thing she eats, not a “forbidden fruit” that’s rarely offered and thus really desired.
Also see: 20+ helpful vegan parenting resources for raising vegan kids.
8. Make eating out a regular thing if possible*.
It’s simple: the more we expose our kids to an activity, the more familiar that activity becomes to them.
When they know why we are going to a restaurant, and what’s going to happen once we get there, it becomes less stressful for them to deal with the whole experience.
At the same time, I understand that eating out with kids often is not something most of us can easily afford, or want to deal with emotionally. That’s why I’m putting an asterisk* here.
All families are different, so regardless of how often you’re taking your kids out to eat (by choice or by circumstance; vegan or non-vegan), I’m sure you’re trying to do what’s best.
I hope that my tips for eating out with kids will be helpful to your family next time you venture out! You got this!
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