We take a closer look at what’s available when eating out with the family and get residents' advice on their favourites
How to choose a child-friendly restaurant in the UAE
It’s not easy to avoid eating out in the UAE, and why should we? Practically every cuisine in the world is on hand, and there’s a new must-try restaurant opening almost every weekend.
That’s all good and well for the Average Joe, but parents heading out to eat with their children can almost guarantee a ruined meal and disappointing experience if there’s a lack of viable options for the little ones.
On picky eaters and allergies
It’s not just the food that parents consider, there are other questions that need answering. Is the atmosphere inviting for families? Will the kid’s menu accommodate food allergies or dietary restrictions, or at least have something that can appease their picky eaters? Is there some sort of entertainment, or better yet, distraction, so kids don’t have to be handed an iPad for the adults to eat in peace? And, most importantly, will children only have chicken nuggets and pizza to choose from, or does the restaurant provide healthy options for their younger clientele?
“As a father-of-two myself, when we choose to eat out as a family, we look for things we know our children would appreciate and give them an experience to remember, creating good memories in good restaurants,” admits Luigi Vespero, the executive chef at the Michelin-starred Mediterranean restaurant Demoiselle by Galvin in City Walk. The restaurant serves a delicious pasta dish that children are particularly fond of, says Vespero, and parents shouldn’t balk at ordering it.
“When planning a children’s menu, I firmly believe that the first and most important factor is to consider the nutritional facts and quality of the ingredients used to produce the dishes,” he says.
This means that if a child demands a burger, there’s nothing wrong with that option, if the burger is made with high-quality ingredients, perhaps using grass-fed, organic beef, and served with freshly made potato chips.
“Fun foods are not always nutritious, so the ingredients used and how they are prepared, have to be of utmost importance, and the primary pillar to set in place when designing a children’s menu,” explains Vespero.
Some UAE options
Increasingly, more restaurants are coming around to the benefit of adding a twist to their kid-sized dishes and food offerings, in order to entice parents. Taqado Mexican Kitchen, for example, has taken to providing children with mini versions of their tacos and quesadillas, as well as mini churro portions with a chocolate dipping sauce for dessert, all the while promising parents that their children can eat for free when an adult orders a main meal.
Similarly, Bentley Kitchen in Abu Dhabi is also offering a free kid’s meal with every main course purchased during February.
Though these types of tactics are an excellent way to encourage parents to pick a restaurant they might not otherwise consider, fearing it might be too fancy to bring the kids to, what is served still plays a huge role in making it fit for families with little ones.
“The food needs to be nutritious, it needs to be fresh, side orders for kids need to venture away from just French fries and offer kid-friendly salads and vegetables, even if it means serving heart-shaped carrots or drawing smiley faces on the dishes with the food, to pique a child’s interest,” says Rana Naffa, a nutritionist and mother-of-two.
The Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai Festival City, for example, serves meals to children on plates shaped like guitars. “Kids like these sort of gimmicks,” she says.
Helen Farmer, mother of 3-year-old Phoebe and baby Tabitha, runs the blog The Mothership DXB. She only eats out with the children during the day, rather than venturing out with them for dinner, so she tends to play it safe and choose “casual restaurants and cafes”.
“I don’t want to eat in ‘kiddie’ places, as such, so it has to work for us as adults, too, with some child-friendly menu items and entertainment. Good value and healthyish dishes are essential,” she explains.
Farmer lists some of her favourites as Bystro, which offers free babyccinos and also have a play area for little ones.
She also likes “Inn The Park for its grassy area, Lime Tree’s picnic-style lunches are great – and they have plastic plates and cutlery, and Park House’s mini Nutella pancakes are a crowd-pleaser”.
The common theme? There’s always something that will appeal to her children – not just in terms of food, but in terms of providing a little bit of extra space for them to run around and burn off that excess energy.
Joyce Amm, mother of Matteo, 6, and Ella, 3, is of the same mindset. “If I’m going out to eat with my children, I need to know there’s something on the menu that they will agree to eat, and I need to know that they can run around and not have to stay confined to the table, but that I’ll still be able to keep an eye on them.”
Restaurants that allow kids to interact with food – such as Eataly in The Dubai Mall, where kids can knead their own pizza dough, or the Olive Tree restaurant in Aloft Al Ain, where on Friday nights, kids can select from their pizza toppings and “decorate” their pizzas as they see fit, are favourites of parents like Amm. “This way, the meal stops becoming a chore to get through and instead we’re all having fun,” she says.
RESIDENTS' TOP CHOICES
There’s no better way to choose which restaurant to eat out in with your children than by asking parents who have gone before you. Word of mouth is unbeatable. Parents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai share their favourite places to eat out in with their children.
“My kids love Romano’s Macaroni Grill. They get the pasta with grilled chicken breast and broccoli on the side, with a scoop of ice cream and a drink.” - Nevein Mourad, Dubai
“Zafran has just opened a new restaurant in the Marina and they have a great kids menu. My kids love the curries and the fish there. So healthy!” - Beverly Puri, Dubai
“Our family favourite is Eataly. Everything is fresh and made from scratch for the kids. My son loves the minestrone. Another good one is Pantry Cafe. They used to give organic baby food for free for babies under one. - Natalia Godes
“Carluccio’s is amazing for kids, great value for Dh35. They have a kid’s menu with a starter and main and dessert, they give kids a puzzle to work on, and the options are varied and healthy.” - Ana Rita Rossi Schmitz
“We choose to order from the kid’s menu only when there are healthy options. Places like Butcha, Pots Pans & Boards, and Big Chef are actually very good at that. And the Jumeirah Hotels have a good menu too, with salmon and veggies.” - Irina Foster
Abu Dhabi Favourites:
“Student Biryani have an option of non-spicy biryani with chicken pops, my kids love it.” - Satwat Irfan
“Jim’s Kitchen Table has great kids’ food. It’s a bit of a trek to Masdar City but so worth it, with quality food and great portions. They understand about allergies and are very good with changing parts of the dish to accommodate.” - Freya Jaffar
“Jones the Grocer has a nice kids menu, with sausages, mash and peas with gravy, mac and cheese, mini gourmet burgers (think home style, not fast food) and more.” - Ela Jayne
“Galito’s has healthy kids’ meals, their grilled chicken is excellent, and they are great for anyone who has to go dairy-free.” - Amy Bambridge
“Our kids’ favourites include Tawa, Tasha’s and the Cycle Hub Bistro.” - Holly Morrison
“Cafe Bateel is a favourite for our whole family. If you want to eat healthily, their salads are amazing, and they have so much variety on their kids’ menus.” - Katie Joukadjian
Choosing a hotel: One mum's story
Sometimes, entertaining the kids is not as high on the list of priorities as keeping them safe and healthy. Canadian mother-of-two Azzizza Larsen, who was recently on holiday in the UAE and staying at the JA Palm Court hotel in Dubai, says she chooses restaurants for her kids based on how accommodating they are to her baby’s allergies.
Larsen, who lives in Denmark with her husband and two boys – Ilyas, age 5, and Isaac, 15 months old – spent months researching hotels in Dubai to find one who would take her son’s dairy and soy allergies seriously. “It’s our biggest challenge as parents: finding restaurants that take the risk of cross contamination seriously and ones that can be trusted to take my son’s allergies seriously,” says Larsen.
The Jebel Ali Palm Court hotel ticked all the right boxes for Larsen; they took the time to understand what her son could and couldn’t eat, and promised they would accommodate the family’s needs.
“Kids with allergies can get really ill on holidays, so this hotel has been a Godsend,” explains Larsen. “The chefs always stop by our table when we go into any of the restaurant’s for any meal, and chat to us about what they propose to make our baby, and once they get the go ahead from us, they make him fresh food from scratch. It’s always healthy, it’s always safe. We’ve even arrived at dinner one night to find a mixed veggie purée made with olive oil, ready for him to eat. It’s been such a weight off our shoulders,” she says. It all comes down to doing the research beforehand, advises Larsen. Whether it’s variety you’re looking for when it comes to feeding your children, to caution because of allergies, or simply healthy, freshly made food rather than pesky chicken nuggets, the bottom line is to take the time to check what’s on offer before heading out to a restaurant, and making an informed decision.