Sometimes my demon spawn—I mean wonderful children—will deign to sit at a restaurant and color the little placemat and eat while I eat a salad I didn’t have to prepare in peace and stare into the abyss. I’m fine. Sometimes restaurants serve floppy chicken nuggets that my child literally throws up onto the table. That is not fine.
While we all want to believe we’re going to make gorgeous, balanced, home cooked meals every day of the week, sometimes we’re traveling, out late running errands or coming back from a game, or simply can’t be bothered. It’s nice to know that, should you visit one of these big chains, there are options that can make your child happy, or at least fill their tummies enough to avoid a hunger meltdown. Here are some of the kids’ menus that don’t suck.
The menu that reads like a novella does not skimp on the children’s literature section. There are many kinds of carbs and even grilled chicken and salmon, if you have a child that will eat that, plus there’s sides. What’s great here is the very impressive dessert case. Even if your kid thinks cheesecake is weird, there’s also cake and ice cream. If you’re lucky, you’re likely to get some steamed broccoli in them on this trip.
Chili’s donates to St. Jude’s hospital, making Marlo Thomas happy, which makes you feel better about humming the baby back ribs commercial for a week straight after taking your kids there. The Pepper Pals meals seem to be the actual right amount of food a kid eats at any given meal, and if you join their rewards program, you can feed your kids for free.
This one might have made the list because my dad loves Denny’s. Between road trips with my family and post-high school musical cast parties, I’ve been to Denny’s a lot. Their kid menu is sparse but has the right sized portions for little kids. But you don’t have to limit yourself to the kids’ menu at this place, especially because you can order any meal from the menu all day. Pancakes for dinner? Yes, please.
The charm of the IHOP kids’ menu is the smiley faces on the pancakes and the inexpensive, smaller portions, but like Denny’s this is another place where kids can wander all over the menu without getting too lost or wracking up too big of a bill or food waste log. They also have a rewards program if this place becomes a family favorite.
Seafood was not a thing I would go anywhere near when I was a child, but that’s cool at Legal Sea Foods—their kids’ menu accommodates kids who either can’t or won’t touch the stuff because of allergies or pickiness. They also have gluten-free foods and, yes, a kids’ menu with kids’-sized seafood options. All the kid meals come with fruit and a veggie option if they don’t go for the fries or rice.
Pasta and bread are perennial kid pleasers, and Olive Garden has it covered. They even have gluten-free options for kids with dietary restrictions. Sorry, kids, “No soup (or salad) for you,” with the $6ish kids’ meals. While it doesn’t explicitly offer it on the menu, yes, past me, I’m sure you can order plain noodles with butter with unlimited breadsticks.
Here’s another one with a very inexpensive kids’ menu and a rewards program. Simple, unadorned food will help your picky eater make it through the meal and you also have the option to add on for a more adventurous jackaroos. Plus, there’s fruit so they won’t get scurvy and kangaroos everywhere to enjoy.
Panera’s the place that will make your kid a sandwich you totally could have made at home except you forgot. A kids’ turkey sandwich or grilled cheese is nearly $5, which is a bummer, but if you have a very adventurous child, maybe they’ll get something more exotic like a Greek salad or sandwich with an avocado on it. While you’re there, you can get something for yourself instead of just eating their crusts.
The P.F. Chang’s “special occasion” vibe could be ruined by a kid who screams when the carrots are cut up into the fried rice. The kids’ menu solves this inevitable crisis by making smaller, cheaper, bite-sized entrees and sides for your sidekicks. The Honey Chicken sauce is on the side, making for fun dipping or skipping if it’s too scary, and there is nary a scallion in sight.
When I was a kid I really liked Red Robin for the ambiance, you know? The kids’ specific foods are pretty basic, but there are many side options if you want to sneak in some veggies before the inevitable milkshake. Some locations have 50% off the kids’ menu on Wednesdays.