By the age of 2, Tru and Cruz Crenshaw were each already eating sushi, said their mother, Alayna Crenshaw. Her adventurous soul and her husband D.C.’s love for food encouraged the couple to introduce their children to the same food the parents were eating for dinner at an early age.
As the years passed, people would often be in awe when they noticed that their sons sat at the dinner table with a “grown-up” dish rather than the typical chicken nuggets, pizza or burgers offered on kids’ menus.
That’s when the couple decided to create Little Diner’s Crew, a dining club exclusively for kids that allows them to expand their palate by trying new foods from different cultures at different restaurants throughout the city every month. The experience also helps young kids learn dining etiquette and know more about how the food is prepared and from where the ingredients are sourced.
The couple realized that at most restaurants the kids’ menu was limited and parents were not encouraged to have their kids try new foods, D.C. Crenshaw said. Now, at their dining club, the kids get to try all kinds of food, and pick their own mocktail.
The crew is now in its fifth year and there are still plenty of restaurants and new foods to try, the Crenshaws said. After the pandemic shutdown, parents and kids alike became more interested in trying new foods, they said. Though membership fluctuates, there have been up to 50 members, from ages 4 to 18.
Jennifer Husbands, and her child, Maya Bennett, 10, who uses the pronouns they/them, joined more than four years ago with the intention of spending more time together but, more importantly, to get Maya to explore the beauty of the culinary world, Husbands said.
Maya loved the club. “It’s fun,” they said. “I’ve tried things and liked things I never thought I would like but turns out that I do like it.” One of the favorite items so far has been a matcha creme brulee from KOMO restaurant in Fulton Market, though their favorite foods are still tiramisu and ravioli.
Maya wants more friends to join the club. “I think they’ll like trying all the new food too,” they said.
The club was born out of the love D.C. and Alayna Crenshaw shared for food and culture over 16 years of marriage. But it was not something they had planned.
When D.C. — a pharmaceutical rep at the time — moved to the Chicago area, he discovered his passion for trying new restaurants around the city when taking out his clients, he said. As the list of his favorite restaurants grew, he decided to create a dining club for adults called Fete.
The expertise and connections he created through his dining club eventually led him to produce and host a TV show called “Game Time Dine,” which allowed fans to see their favorite athletes cook with famous chefs in Chicago restaurants.
He then paired his new career with his wife’s love for travel and extensive exposure to cuisine from all over the world to create the dining club for children together.
During each Little Diner’s Crew meeting, kids sit at a separate table from adults. Sometimes the kids are in a different part of the restaurant to give them more of a sense of independence, thus encouraging them to try whatever the chefs may serve, Alayna Crenshaw said. Parents of teen diners can drop them off at the restaurant.
D.C. and Alayna Crenshaw join the kids at their table and lead the conversations about the particular restaurant and its roots. The participants rate each dish and go around the table to talk about their preferences.
“That way, if one of them doesn’t want to try something, maybe if they see one of their peers trying it and say something positive about it, then they will try it too,” Alayna Crenshaw said.
For D.C. Crenshaw, it’s been rewarding to see just how much his own children, now 11 and 14, have grown from their love for food. Not only is their palate expansive, their knowledge of the world and of different cultures is also wide-ranging. He hopes that the club has the same impact on other children.
“They are able to experience different aspects of the cultures through food that they may not otherwise experience, and sit down and eat with other kids — and parents with other parents — who they may not otherwise know,” D.C. Crenshaw said. “So it allows them to have less biases of cultures down the road and be more likely to accept and understand the difference they may have with others.”
Husbands said that she has enjoyed seeing Maya expanding palate and spending time with other children who are willing to open their minds to new foods and new cultures. Some of the countries featured through their dinners include Cuba, Korea, China, Italy, India and Jamaica.
“There is so much diversity and I appreciate that so much,” Husbands said. “I, myself, have been exposed to new things.”
Alayna said she also hopes restaurants understand that kids can and are willing to try other foods beyond chicken nuggets, pizza and burgers.
Parents and children don’t have to be members to partake in the monthly events but there are annual and monthly memberships available. To learn more, visit littledinerscrew.com.