Tips for Eating in Paris With Kids
Paris has hundreds of fantastic restaurants, though not all of them are ideal for eating out with children. As much as I love French food, eating in Paris can be a bit intimidating, especially for less adventurous eaters or younger travelers. Add the language barrier, later dinner hours and the fact that some restaurants and their staff can be a bit put off by families with kids, and it’s easy to see how dining with your offspring in Paris can feel a little daunting.
Do not worry too much though. Paris really is quite a kid-friendly city overall. A big part of traveling with kids is being prepared for local food habits and choices, so that you can make plans that work for your family. Here are a few tips on French eating customs to ensure you have an enjoyable visit and things run smoothly. After all, you are visiting one the world’s premier culinary destinations, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of this fact.
FRENCH EATING HABITS
Similar to Spain, France is a country where eating is considered one of life’s greatest pleasures. French meals are not taken quickly to simply feed oneself. Rather, a meal is regarded as a time to slow down and enjoy yourself, preferably with family and friends or work colleagues during the lunch hour.
The French usually have three meals a day and most people, including kids, don’t really snack. (Although French children usually have a small sweet snack after school to tide them over to dinner.) No need for concern, however, if you and your family need to refuel in between meals. While meal times might be limited to certain hours (noon to 2:30 pm for lunch and 7 to 9 pm for dinner), there are plenty of options to grab a bite in between.
Countless boulangeries (bakeries) and patiseries (pastry shops), offering fresh baguettes, insanely delicious pastries and tasty sandwiches, can be found in practically every neighborhood. There are also various “street food” choices like crêpes or falafels. (Look for them in Marai, apparently they are some of the best in the world.) You can also find some seasonal treasures like roasted chestnuts in the fall. Finally, cafés dotting most Parisian neighborhoods are places to enjoy a nice cup of café au lait and also get a pastry, a sandwich or a small, simple meal.
Tip: Many tourist attractions you will likely be visiting, such as the Paris museums or Eiffel Tower, also offer food and refreshments (usually both French and international choices) all day long.
LUNCH IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY; DINNER IS SERVED LATE
For the French, lunch is the most important and often biggest meal. It is not rushed, but rather taken as long break in the middle of the day. I read a study that suggested the French take more time for lunch than any other country in the world.
Dinner in France is a smaller, simpler meal and served later than we might be used to at home. We found that most restaurants don’t take dinner reservations before 7 or 7:30 pm, which can be challenging for families with kids, especially those on the younger side with earlier bedtimes.
Tip: Make lunch your dinner. Even though our kids are now older and stay up later, we did just that. It was great to have a longer break in the middle of the day in-between our sightseeing to rest, discuss our experiences from that morning, and plan our attack for the afternoon. Our big lunch also generally left us wanting “something smaller” for dinner, which was not hard to find before the official dinner hours (see “snacking options” above). Or, it made waiting until 7 pm tolerable since we were not starving.
BISTRO, BRASSERIE, CAFÉ OR A RESTAURANT?
The different names for restaurants can be confusing for tourists visiting Paris. Is there are difference, you ask? Without getting into too many details, here is a quick summary of each:
Cafés are very casual places, open all day. They usually serve coffee, drinks and small, simple meals or snacks (such as pastries or sandwiches, sometimes more). Bistros are smaller neighborhood restaurants, offering food within limited hours for lunch (12 to 2:30 pm) or dinner (from 7 pm on). Brasseries, originally breweries, serve beer, other alcohol beverages and food, which is classic French, all day. Considered a typical Paris dining establishment, they are known for their lively atmosphere. Restaurants are the most formal, offering more sophisticated meals, extensive wine lists and higher prices.
Tip: Most bistros and brasseries offer one or more daily specials for lunch or dinner, often as two- or three-course meals for set prices. Take my word and go for it! To create daily specials, chefs usually take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients which end up being offered as simple, but splendid meals at a great value. We had the most fantastic meals when we ordered daily specials, and they typically consisted of things we probably would not have opted for otherwise.
SMALLER PORTIONS, THREE COURSES
The portions in France are smaller than those we are used to at home where over-sizing is often the norm, but they will not leave you hungry. In fact, you will have that great “just enough” feeling. French meals, particularly lunch, consist of three or four courses: an appetizer, a main dish and a cheese plate (always served after the meal and before the dessert) and/or dessert (usually something small).
Those delicious baguettes are not eaten at breakfast only. Bread is a usual accompaniment for both lunch and dinner. The obligatory baskets of bread made the wait for food easier when our kids were starving, and we found the loaves particularly helpful to soak up the delicious sauces from our entrees.
NO KIDS MENUS
You won’t find a lot of places with kids’ menus as French children are expected to eat the same food as adults. That said, French food is not spicy, and unless you are at a very fashionable restaurant, there are usually at least several choices that will work for your young eaters. Our waiters were generally good at pointing out kid-friendly(ier) choices or splitting a plate for our two kids.
Some of the French foods that are usually popular with kids include:
- Steak Frites: Steak and fries, usually you have several choices for the steak sauce which comes separately. Kids will have fun dipping and sampling.
- Croque Monsieur: A French institution, essentially a glorified toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Way glorified.
- Duck Confit: Similar to awesome tasting dark chicken meat.
- Soupe à l’Oignon: French onion soup, delicious and satisfying especially when it’s cold outside. Kids will love it even if they don’t like onions.
- Crepes: You decide on sweet or savory and pick the filings.
- Quiche Lorraine: This or any other version of quiche fillings are usually liked by kids.
- French Omelet: Nothing like the oversized, overfilled omelets you might be used at home, this is a simpler, less loaded and oh-so-delicious version.
- Croissants or pain au chocolate: Classic Paris breakfast choices.
- Gâteau au Yaourt: Vanilla flavored yogurt cake, very simple and very popular in France, sometimes eaten with whipped cream, fruit or other accompaniments. Either way, usually a big hit with kids.
- Crème Brûlée: The quintessential French desert, traditionally vanilla flavored, but sometimes in other variations such as chocolate, coffee or raspberry.
- Profiteroles: Pastry filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with warm chocolate.
- Éclairs: Pastry filled with vanilla cream or whipped cream.
- Mousse au Chocolat: Hard not to like chocolate mousse.
- Tarte aux Fruits: A tart with simple vanilla custard and seasonal fruit.
Tip: The menus in France are always displayed outside the establishment, making it easy to preview the food selection and price range.
WHEN DINING OUT… DRESS UP A LITTLE
Parisians, including their children, dress up a little bit more than we do at home even for a casual restaurant. I’m not suggesting a coat and tie, but we made sure to replace sneakers with shoes and T-shirts with button-down shirts. Perhaps the French are just generally more chic, but in Europe, dressing up a bit is also way of showing respect for the establishment you are visiting, including restaurants. Frankly, it made our meals a little bit more special and somehow, we all stepped up our table manners too.
A FEW OTHER HELPFUL TIPS
Here are a few other tips that might help you navigate the Paris dining scene:
- Fine dining is usually much cheaper at lunch than dinner so you can sample food from famous chefs that might otherwise be budget prohibitive. It is not unusual to see the same prix-fixe meal offered at lunch with a considerable price discount.
- While smoking has been banned inside enclosed spaces, unfortunately, you can still expect to be surrounded by smoke, particularly if you are dining outside. If this is a concern, I suggest you sit inside or try to arrive at the beginning of opening hours when the places are not yet filled up.
- It is considered rude to try to customize your entree in France (no capers, sauce on the side, replace rice with potatoes). The chefs take great pride in their thoughtful creations, and such a gesture would be considered insulting unless you have serious dietary restrictions or allergies.
- French don’t usually serve their water with ice, so if you want some, ask (and expect only a few ice cubes).
- Try to refrain from ordering Coke with your meal unless you want to be considered barbaric. Stick with wine and water (and perhaps fruit juices, not milk, for kids).
- We found out that the French like their meat very rare. So if you normally order you meat “medium rare,” consider ordering “medium” in France.
- No need to whisper, but try to speak a little bit softer at your dining table. Americans are known as very loud and often a target of dirty looks from fellow diners, especially if our children are not reminded not to shout (often not a big deal at home).
- The wait staff won’t bring you a check at the end of the meal unless you ask for it. (It would be considered an equivalent of throwing you out.) So when you are ready to leave, simply ask l’addition s’il vous plaît (check, please).
- Tax and tip are included in your bill, so extra tip is not required or expected. However, do round your check to the next Euro or so, particularly for good service. It is always appreciated.
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Know Before You Go
- The Jardin des Plantes is the most popular garden in France, housing over 200 species of plants. The garden also has a zoo that is open daily.
- There is another Statue of Liberty on the Ile aux Cygnes (also known as Swan Lake).
- The Pere Lachaise Cemetery holds the graves of the famous Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Frederic Chopin. A stroll through this cemetery is a nice free escape from the chaos of the city.