Life can be such a whirlwind, even if that whirlwind is made of lots of in-the-moment moments and exciting new collaborations. Such was this past week for me, with a few days camping in the wilderness completely offline (will share more on that soon). Also I was thrilled to have a couple of guest posts on two of my favorite (albeit completely different in theme!) blogs. If you haven't already seen them and are inclined to do so, there's one on parenting on Janet Lansbury's blog, and another about writing on Shanna and Tim's Food Loves Writing. Very grateful, for these posts brought in a lot of new followers, so if that's you, welcome!
For this new installment of my Summer Goat Cheese Series in collaboration with Vermont Creamery's Kids & Kids Campaign, I wanted to share a version of the French restaurant classic: the salade de chèvre chaud (warm goat cheese salad). Most restaurants, cafés and brasseries in France have it on their menu, it is what the French would consider a "run-of-the-mill" first course (or main course for lunch). This is also a dish Pablo LOVES, and which I would order for him in a heartbeat in a restaurant, as I think would a lot of French parents for their kids (or themselves for that matter.)
This is giving me an opportunity to write a somewhat practical post on taking kids (including infants and toddlers) to the restaurant.
One of my favorite connecting time with Pablo is when the both of us go out to lunch once in a while. We have taken him out to eat with us since he was a couple of months old, and continued to do so every so often since then. Between 6 and 12 months, I would bring his food with me (I would pack some vegetable finger food as a first course, a puree for the main course, some cheese and a yogurt for dessert) and give him a taste of what we were having depending on what it was. After 12 months, Pablo started to eat pretty much the same as us, I could easily just order for him from the menu.
Probably one of the greatest unspoken French rules of eating, is that a meal should be thoroughly enjoyable. If it is stressful or rushed, it feels like a waste. On recent trips, and as Pablo is at the height of toddlerhood (27 months now), I have been very grateful and so happy to see how great he is when we take him out to eat. He loves it, he stays at the table and is fairly well-mannered (the walls usually remain clean when we leave!), he eats heartily and with interest. I can relax and enjoy the meal with minor adjustments here and there.
A lot of people have witnessed this and expressed great surprise, and have asked me what my secret is. I never thought of it as a secret, but thinking back on it, that thoroughly enjoyable meal with our children has a few preconditions. Here are eight strategies and tips that have worked for us:
1 - We eat together as a family on a daily basis
So sitting down together for a meal, and eating the same (real) foods as us is nothing out of the ordinary for Pablo. It makes sense that children that are most often fed alone, before the grown-ups, wouldn't do too well sitting at the table in a restaurant for a while. I'm really big on the family meal for many reasons, this one included. Plus, when children are fed separately, their meal is usually much faster than a family meal would be. (I've actually noticed on a couple of occasions where I ate a meal without Pablo, how much faster I eat then. Eating with him, encouraging him to eat slowly and mindfully, and being engaged with him during our family meals has helped me to slow down my eating greatly too.)
I should add also that thanks to a few strategies practised over time, our meals, at home or at the restaurant, are mostly sans power struggles or boundary testings, which is a blessing.
2 - We eat in courses at home
Just like at a restaurant. Pablo is used to eating a first course, then wait a little bit before the main course, then cheese and fruit or yogurt for dessert if desired. I've talked about the many benefits of eating in courses in this very popular post. This is definitely an added benefit. When we go out to eat, the waiting factor is a non-issue. While we wait for the food, we have a nice little conversation about what we ordered and how the chef in the kitchen is preparing it, that usually gets his imagination going. Or we people watch, Pablo loves that too :-)
3 - We engage him as an integral member of the meal
If we go out with Pablo, it is to have a nice meal with him. Otherwise, we go out without him, which we sometimes need to do and that's fine. So I always make sure he's part of the conversation, like any person you would have dinner with. This is definitely a time to connect. (When you think of it, how rude would it be to go out with someone to then proceed to have private conversations that exclude them?)
4 - He's used to real food, and a wide variety of it
Forget kids' menus. In most restaurants I've been to, they are a crying shame (as is the idea of kids' food, in my opinion...) So I always order on the regular menu for him, and we share some of our dishes with him. The portions are often so big anyway, it works out perfectly. For example, recently at The Black Cat in Cambria, I ordered the celery root cilantro soup (which inspired this post) to share with him along with a couple of appetizers for us, and we shared our entrees with him, so he could get a taste of everything (which he loves).
The fact that he eats just about everything is a big factor as well, due to the fact that he's been exposed to a wide variety of foods (vegetables, meat, fish) since 5 months old and especially during that golden window 6-18 months roughly where infants are so willing to try new foods and put just about anything in their mouth (a crucial period to steer away from kids' foods). Even if he were to reject anything new now (which is not the case), he's already tried so many different things these past two years of life that I would be hard pressed to find a (real) food he hasn't already had. So no matter where we eat, there will always be something he will enjoy eating.
5 - He's used to mindful eating
I usually avoid distractions at the table, so the meal is an end in itself and a pleasurable experience deserving of our full attention. Same goes at the restaurant. I definitely avoid all screens across the board (I will admit seeing kids or adults focused on their phones or other screens at the table drives me crazy). If there are television screens in the restaurant, I try to ask for a table away from them (or better, choose screen-free restaurants!) I might bring a small book or a crayon or two if the meal or the wait get a bit long.
6 - We go at the right time
I try to have realistic expectations, i.e. make sure Pablo's not too tired, that he's had a good afternoon nap or good night sleep if it's lunch out. Also I try to make sure he's had plenty of independent, self-directed play prior to the meal so he's relaxed and ready to connect (but not overtired). And we go early enough so he doesn't start to fade mid-meal. At home, we usually sit down for dinner between 6:45 and 7p, when we go out, we try for 6:30-6:45 to have plenty of time to enjoy the meal. I also make sure he's bathed and in his pajamas when we go (or for a fancier meal, I bring his pajamas with me and change him at the restaurant after the meal). Thus the meal is the last, relaxing event of the day for everyone.
7 - We make sure he's hungry
Snacking is very limited in our household, so the family meals are enjoyed fully and eaten with good appetite. Pablo has an afternoon snack (usually pretty light, he doesn't seem to get that hungry) between 4:30 and 5pm. If we go out to dinner, I might offer it a bit earlier to insure he has a good appetite.
When we get to the restaurant, we also try to limit eating too much bread before the food arrives. (Bread is never served first in a French restaurant typically, but to accompany the meal in reasonable quantity, definitely not the thing to get full on when you're most hungry.)
8 - Choosing the right restaurant
We don't necessarily go for the typical "family-friendly", as it can mean a loud environment. So first we choose a restaurant where we enjoy the food (seems obvious, but my point is that that takes priority over being "kid-friendly".) We also try to go to restaurants that do have high-chairs or boosters: Toddlers tend to get fidgety and expecting them to sit still in a booth bench for example, is unrealistic, they're bound to want to slide around, jump etc.
Also we choose restaurants that are not too loud. I found that Pablo gets tired and over-excited and stimulated fast with a very loud place (as we do.) So a place that lends itself to conversation is best (though since we usually go earlier than the crowds would, that often works out).
There you have it! I hope this is helpful. Would love to hear your tips and feedback!
In the meantime, enjoy this warm goat cheese salad, and if you want more information about Vermont Creamery and the Kids & Kids Campaign, check out their Facebook Page and Pinterest page too. As good as this salad was, their cheeses are so scrumptious I always enjoy them most pure, from the tip of my fingers :-)
Golden Beet Warm Goat Cheese Salad, with Sorrel Almond Pesto
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45-60 minutes
Age for babies: 8-10 months, the pieces of beet topped with warm goat cheese make a great finger food.
1 Coupole goat cheese from Vermont Creamery (or firm, aged goat cheese, like bûche) (fridge cold)
Lamb's lettuce (mâche) (or other lettuce of choice, watercress would do nicely too)
2-3 golden beets
For the pesto dressing:
20-25 leaves of sorrel (or other herb of choice, or use the beet greens - see note below)
2-3 tbsp sliced almonds
Olive oil (I used 1/2 cup here)
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper
Preheat the oven at 450°F. Cut the greens off the beets, give the beets a wash and wrap them individually in foil. Place in a baking pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender when you prick them with a knife.
(I recommend you keep the greens and bake some extra beets to try these incredible tartlets and the beet greens pesto from Vanilla Bean blog, which were a big hit at our Mother's day lunch this year.)
When done, remove the foil and let them cool. (You can do this a few days ahead and just have the cooked beets in the fridge, ready for salads etc.)
Make the pesto: Combine the sorrel leaves and almonds in a food processor, and add the olive oil progressively until you obtain a thick but pourable dressing. Then add the lemon juice and season to taste. (You will probably have leftover dressing, which can be used on any salad).
(*Note that you can make any other kind of pesto dressing of choice here, check out this awesome one from Food Loves Writing)
Peel the beets and cut medium thick slices lengthwise.
Preheat your broiler at 500°F, and place the tray at the top position, close to the heat.
Prepare your plates: put some mâche in each plate, add a little dressing on top (alternatively, you can put all the mâche in a bowl and toss it with some dressing prior to plating). Place a few slices of beet on top of the mâche.
Then take the cheese out of the fridge and cut thick slices lengthwise with a knife or cheese wire cutter if you have one (one Coupole makes 3 to 4 thick slices).
Place the slices of goat cheese on a non-stick baking pan, or on parchment paper in a baking pan, and broil for a few minutes, until it starts to get golden. (Watch this carefully, it melts fast! It should only take a couple of minutes).
Place the warm goat cheese slices on top of beet slices in each plate, top with a little pesto dressing, and serve immediately.