Our Top 15 Restaurant Recommendations for Picky Eaters

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Arepas from Guasaca. Photo by Sarah Arneson.

Being a parent and a foodie can sometimes be a challenge. Let’s face it, the term “foodie” is definitely not synonymous with what you find on a standard kids’ menu.

For my husband and me, it’s especially complicated because we’re foster parents and have had kids of different ages and varying tastes stay with us over the past two years. Throughout this time, we’ve had to figure out creative ways to please both our desire for good local food and some of our kids’ more limited preferences. Luckily, we’ve discovered some strategies that make everyone happy.

The Fun of Build-Your-Own

The fast-casual trend of build-your-own bowl or meal isn’t only great for young professionals and students on the go. It’s also fun for kids who want to control exactly what’s on their plate. Customizable options are also a great solution for groups of friends who may have conflicting preferences. 

Our family likes creating our own arepas at Guasaca. Picky eaters can go basic with grilled chicken, rice, cheese and sour cream, and then work their way up to one of my favorite combinations: shredded beef, black-eyed peas, caramelized onions, plantains and mustard sauce (and a side of chips with guasaca dip, of course).

If you love sushi, but your kids (or less adventurous adult friends/family) don’t, you can compromise at ZenFish. There’s the option to create a beautiful vegetarian bowl or to get cooked shrimp as the protein. Our 10-year-old prefers the flavorful cooked crawfish paired with fruits and veggies like mangos, carrots and edamame, while we opt for the raw salmon and tuna. We’re all big fans of mixing in the housemade eel sauce to give it a sweet note. And now that there is a kid-sized bowl on the menu for $5, it’s become a favorite stop for all of us.

If you have a more adventurous eater, consider Iteawon Grill on Erwin Road: Build-your-own Korean barbecue bowl and add your preferred spice level and toppings. Or check out the Indian lunch buffet nearby at Naan Stop. After digging into her favorites like paneer and aloo (potato) masala during the lunch buffet, we literally need to pry our daughter away from the gulab jamun (fried drops of milk powder dunked in sugar syrup).

Places to Eat & Play

Dining outside in Durham is a treat for the whole family. That’s the appeal of spots like Bull McCabes in the Five Points district, which has plenty of picnic tables outside and a fenced-in grassy area to roam. It’s relaxing at the same time as being very social. With pub food that ranges from loaded French fries for little snackers to a tall Reuben sandwich for hungry adults, there’s something for everyone.

County Fare offers a similar setup in the Lakewood area. A fenced-in lawn with outdoor games like bocce and cornhole provides space for kids to run while parents wind down with a cold beer in hand. Meet up with other friends and families – different food trucks are parked on site every day, and you can order various types of meals whenever a craving hits.

One of our (almost) weekly traditions is going to the Durham Co-op for $3 meals on Thursday nights. And we’re not the only ones: The tables outside are bustling on nice days, and there’s usually entertainment provided by live musicians. After our meal, we scoot across the street for the $2 frozen yogurt special at Local Yogurt, another great Thursday night deal.

Look for Local Alternatives

Many of our foster kids (and kids in general) are accustomed to fast food chain restaurants. Chances are everyone has had visitors who lean towards Bojangles’ and McDonald’s, but Durham is teeming with better, local alternatives … it’s up to us to patronize them.

If our kids like burgers and French fries, we take them to King’s Sandwich Shop or Burger Bach (which recently launched a kids’ menu). For kids who crave chicken fingers and fries, we head to Heavenly Buffaloes and get boneless nuggets with honey barbecue sauce. We get more unique favors for ourselves, like sweet Thai coconut chili. Plus, the waffle fries are an easy crowd-pleaser!

And, of course, there’s pizza. Skip Domino’s and head to Pie Pushers instead. Kids can get a giant slice of cheese or pepperoni for $3, and the adults can enjoy one of their more creative custom pies.

Don’t be afraid to venture outside of the box either. Think of a basic food your kids enjoy, and then challenge them to try something just a little bit different. We are able to convince most skeptical eaters to try Salvadorian food by saying if they like cheese quesadillas, they’ll probably love pupusas, and it’s true.

Brunching for Beginners

Patience isn’t exactly a childhood virtue, which means you may have to work your way up to up enjoying a leisurely family meal at a nice restaurant, but we have found brunch is a good place to start.

Our kids love ordering giant flapjacks the size of their head from It’s A Southern Thing and True Flavors Diner. Lathered in maple syrup, butter and a side of bacon, it’s more than enough food to keep them noshing away while you enjoy your meal.

And sometimes the promise of a sweet treat along with breakfast is all you need to string them along … I’ll admit, sometimes it’s all I need, too! I dream of those warm, powdered sugar beignets from Rue Cler or the fried-to-order crullers with chantilly mascarpone and jam from Jack Tar and The Colonel’s Daughter.

With these great local options, foodies no longer have to sacrifice a good meal with picky eaters. Over time, even they will be able to taste the difference. 

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Amber Watson

Amber Watson

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