What is better than April in Paris? I’ll tell you: April in Paris with kids. Although our most recent trip there was eight months ago, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it. And since April is a month that gets us all thinking of the City of Light, throughout the month of April I’ll be sharing stories, tips, and even some ideal itineraries for families interested in visiting Paris or just daydreaming about it.
If you know me at all, you know I love food, French food in particular. But in my experience, France can be a challenging country to dine in with children, unlike Italy, whose national dishes are pizza and pasta, or Great Britain, where the major cities tend to offer not only pub food but a wide range of kid-friendly ethnic options like noodle shops.
French food is specific and can be uncompromising, which some would argue is the secret to its greatness. But that greatness can be obscured when it’s 5 p.m. in Paris and you’ve got a hungry child on your hands. And as is true in many places these days, even France, it’s possible to get truly awful food in Paris even in the type of simple places in the student quarters that used to offer reliably decent cheap meals a mere decade ago. Throw in a language barrier and the famous hauteur of Parisian waiters and it’s easy to be intimidated by the prospect of eating in Paris with kids.
I know I was. The first time I visited Paris with kids in 2008, my children were 3 and 6 and I brought an au pair with me for the express purpose of being able to go out to eat.
(I’d like to add here that this sounds much fancier and more complicated than it was – my “au pair” was the daughter of my priest, I’d known her since childhood, and her “pay” was a plane ticket to Paris, purchased with miles and food and lodging during our stay. I offer more details of just how that worked in my post about bringing help to Paris.)
But even on that first family Parisian visit I ended up dining out with my children a few times (once, disastrously). And I learned a thing or two then, and on our subsequent visit in 2012, about the best way to enjoy a variety of good meals during a family trip to Paris, some of them in restaurants.
Here are my top tips for eating in Paris with kids:
Parisian markets are your friends. I have something of a friendly standing argument with my friend Amie of the website Ciao Bambino! about whether it’s best to rent an apartment or a hotel room in Paris. I contend that an apartment with a kitchen is the best option, especially when visiting with kids; she’s a huge fan of kid-friendly hotels, especially those with wonderful restaurants (and if you want tips on which ones to pick, you won’t do any better to check her recommendations for family-friendly hotels in France).
Obviously, if you have an apartment with a kitchen, you have the ability to cook, and since there are numerous weekly markets in Paris, to say nothing of an abundance small butchers, grocers, traiteurs (purveyors of prepared foods like pâtés and terrines), bakeries, and supermarkets (I’m a huge fan of Monoprix and Picard Surgelés) that will keep you provisioned with excellent produce and meat that you can prepare any way that you like. I would contend that this is the best option for families with very young children, children with food allergies, or very picky eaters.
But even if you are staying in a hotel and only have access to a refrigerator in your room, markets are a great way for traveling families to learn about what the French cook in their homes, to purchase the freshest produce and dairy products for snacks, and to find some prepared foods – especially those of other ethnicities. My kids’ favorite breakfast food in Paris is a samosa purchased from a North African vendor at the Place Monge market.
Picnic! (In French it’s a verb). Venture into any park in Paris at lunchtime and you’ll see plenty of French people enjoying their food on benches or the ubiquitous green metal chairs that the French so considerately place in many of their lovely public spots. As I described above, there are about a hundred ways to provision for a picnic in Paris. We pack our Swiss Army knife and then grab a couple of baguettes, some cheese, some sausage, fruit, and bottled water. Or, if you like your sandwiches ready-made, many bakeries sell them that way.
And if you don’t feel like carrying a picnic with you, many parks have cafés where you can enjoy a casual meal with kids at any point in the afternoon. My favorite aspect of this type of dining is that since it’s France, you can always get a glass of wine while the kids can tear around without anyone looking askance.
Eat dessert first. Dinner tends to be later in Paris than it is in the United States. Some restaurants don’t start serving until 7 p.m. Happily, Paris is also full of bakeries and ice cream shops. I’ve found that a late-afternoon sweet treat goes a long way toward extending my children’s ability to wait for dinner.
Dining out? Dress for it. If you go to a restaurant in Paris and aren’t French, you aren’t going to be able to hide the fact that you aren’t French. But that doesn’t mean you can’t act the part. Parisians would no more go out to eat in sneakers and t-shirts than they would drink milk with their meal. And French children are generally more dressed up than their American counterparts, which means that while I don’t worry too much about attire when we’re playing in the Jardin de Luxembourg, I do always make sure that my children are wearing collared shirts and respectable shoes when we dine out. (And I don’t know about your kids, but mine tend to sit up a little straighter and behave when I’ve made them dress for dinner.)
Find the French dish that your child likes. One thing that makes French food a little bit easier to figure out is that you’ll find many dishes repeated (with slight variations in preparation) at multiple restaurants. Certain classic dishes like steak and fries and sole meunière are easy to find and are great for kids since the preparations tend to be simple. On our 2012 trip to France, 10-year-old Tommy discovered an abiding love for duck confit that he was easily able to satisfy. And Teddy never met a lamb chop he didn’t like.
Note that if your child is a fan of soup or salad or cheese and you’d like to order only that course for him or her, you may have some difficulty convincing the wait staff to bring what they consider to be the first or final course at the same time as your main meal. In those instances, I’d just go with the flow and make sure you have some books or drawing materials for your kids to use while you are enjoying your food.
Don’t expect the staff to be happy to see you. But don’t worry about it either. No one is going to congratulate you for bringing your child out to eat; they probably won’t do so when you try to order in French either. But if your child is well behaved and orders off the menu, you’ve completed your end of the social contract and shouldn’t let any froideur on the part of the restaurant staff put a damper on your good time.
And now it’s your turn. Have you dined with kids in Paris? What are your tips? Please feel free to share in the comments below.
Like this post? You might also want to check out Paris in its proper order if you’re interested in a chronological list of posts from my family’s July 2008 trip to Paris, or visit my Paris page, which lists all of my stories and tips about my favorite city.
And whether you’re reading this post using my RSS feed or are a first-time visitor, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to the Mother of all Trips via email, as the demise of Google Reader and Feedburner mean that in a couple of months my feed url is either going to change or go away completely. Signing up for email updates means you’ll never miss a post (and next week I’ll be sharing my top Paris restaurant recommendations with and without kids).
I share this post as part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust and Lipstick; be sure to check out the other yummy links you’ll find there.