Pro Tips for Getting Kids to Enjoy Fine Dining

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 22, 2014

All photos credit: The Bold Italic

"It tastes like a Tinker Bell popsicle," said four-year-old Lyla Hogan.

The dish in question was on the menu at Thomas Keller’s renowned modern Californian eatery The French Laundry. It was actually not listed as a ”fairy popsicle,” but rather as a dainty “summer melon soup.” And this was little Lyla’s way of giving this, her favorite of the meal, four stars.

The Bold Italic's hilarious photo series “A Four-Year-Old Reviews the…" is the work of Isla Bell Murray and Jessica Saia, a designer and visual producer respectively at the magazine who wondered: How would a tot react to luxury dishes at some of the country’s finest (and priciest) restaurants? 

Since the series launched more than a year ago, a handful of lucky kiddos have tucked into meals at some of the ritziest restaurants in California, including Yountville’s The French Laundry, San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food, State Bird Provisions, and AQ, and Ume (formerly Plum) in Oakland.

Along the way, the two learned a thing or two about getting kids excited about eating adventurously. Here are their pro tips and hilarious snapshots.

"It takes kids a while to warm up to being in a fancy restaurant," Murray said. "At first, they’re a little shy, but consistently everyone has gotten into it." She suggested being patient with a squirmy kiddo, and not pushing a resistant one to eat something she doesn’t like.

"Whenever a kid gets overwhelmed and just doesn’t want to try stuff, we backed off and just were like, ‘We’re just going sit and enjoy ours,’" Murray said. "Then kids just get curious and want to try it."

Sometimes a child’s nemesis is texture, not taste: “I think all except maybe one kid started sobbing when they tried pork belly,” Saia recalled.

A certain creepy-looking type of seafood was also a non-starter for several: “They don’t like anything with tentacles!” Murray said. “I think that might be a visual thing.”

If all else fails, reach for the bread bowl. “They all really loved bread,” Murray said (although eating whole baskets of it might miss the point of fine dining). Still, consider employing bread as a vehicle for other foods, such as caviar or foie gras. 

"Bread is pretty common. Kids probably eat it every day," Saia reasoned. "So when there’s a great buttery piece of extra bread? It’s a solid, non-scary option."

Saia and Murray both noticed that the kids who were good eaters tended to come from parents who are, too. They were most taken with a little girl named Della, who (pork belly and octopus aside) enjoyed every bite of her meal at State Bird Provisions, right down to the pickled anchovy appetizer.

"A lot of the parents had to prep the kids, saying, ‘We’re playing food critic today! We’re trying new foods, and we’re going to try everything,”Saia recalled. “But with Della, she was just like, ‘This is great.’” Her parents placed a premium on eating everything on the plate at home, and it played out in the restaurant.

Murray and Saia both suggested lunch outings over dinner. Saia, who worked in restaurants for a dozen years, said, “I get very aware: Are we disrupting the people around us? It’s something I’m constantly stressing out about,” Saia said. “If it’s possible, go during the day so you’re not disrupting people. It’s less crowded, and kids aren’t going to stay up late anyway.”

On the whole, the two were impressed by the children with whom they dined. ”So many of them have such good manners!” Murray exclaimed.

Saia added, “It was like being at a dinner party with an adult that was really small.”

Both agreed that the kids who enjoyed restaurants were probably more likely to grow up into adventurously inclined adults. “I was just thinking the other day: If in 20 years, these kids might be like, ‘Whoa, I went to the French Laundry and there all all these pictures of it!” Murray mused. “It’s such a lovely thing to look back on.”