Five Mistakes Parents make about Children’s Menus: The Evolution of Kid Food, The Child Menu, Kid-friendly eating and its backlash…
Part two in the Dining out with Kids series.
For the first years of my son’s life I was seriously brass-ed off when a fine restaurant didn’t offer a children’s menu. My initial thought was discrimination against children. Now, many fancy and renowned restaurants are not only happy to offer child friendly food either as a set menu or as pre-determined options, but sometimes will immediately foist the menu in front of the child verbally or printed. This of course presents problems for us – and I expect other parents, as well. Let me explain our challenges…
Most restaurants in America have a children’s menu. This is especially true of chain restaurants which cater to families. Typical foods found there are: Pizza, Mac ‘n cheese, hot dog, hamburger, grilled cheese, chicken fingers, pasta with red sauce (or butter, or cheese), grilled chicken. At more choice-conscious restaurants menus may offer caesar salad, fruit plate, vegetables with dip, mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. Forgive me if I’ve missed one. Generally the food prices are considerably less expensive than for adult menu items.
So what’s wrong with kid’s food?
Let us pretend that the children’s menu presented offers hot dogs, fries, chicken fingers, Caesar salad and pizza. All the ingredients are local, the hot dogs are made by the chef from grass fed beef, he makes the bun and the ketchup, etc. So all sounds great? (I’m ready to order one too!)
Mistake #1: Eating Browns and Beiges.
The problem lies with the limiting of choices and the repetition of food. If you’ve only ever eaten mashed potatoes and grilled chicken, then that’s safe food; easy food. It’s what you will likely order first wherever you go. Playing it safe means playing it boring, and with food it means limiting your diet. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “eat a rainbow”? Kid’s food menus generally do not represent rainbows or promote healthy eating or teach good eating, they just feed the kids foods that are easy to like, foods they’ve already eaten a bunch of times. If you are sitting in a comfortable place why climb the wall to see what’s on the other side?
As parents you definitely want the best for your children., therefore, I’m suggesting not to default automatically to the kid’s menu (especially when your kids are young). If you’ve made the effort to take them to a restaurant, then educate them about restaurants and restaurant foods. Let them eat your food in small portions. Instead of ordering from the children’s menu, order an empty plate and fill it with tiny tastes of what you ordered, unless of course you’ve ordered the chicken and fries and the children’s menu looks amazing… but beware even then.
Mistake #2: Cheaper isn’t Better (…it’s usually worse!)
In a restaurant renowned for their hamburgers, we decided to order a hamburger off the children’s menu. (The adult one would be 2 or 3 times the size of what our son could eat. The kid’s burger arrived – it was unedible. It was clearly a small frozen burger on a stale bun and not the mini version of the good adult burger in a smaller portion. I don’t even want to imagine where the beef came from. Caveat Emptor parents – just because the restaurant’s adult food has a good pedigree that doesn’t mean the kid’s menu is built with the same care, or the food will resemble the adult food. At another restaurant children are offered dry rubbery boneless grilled chicken but the adult choice is a succulent bone-in free-range chicken breast. My guess is that the restaurants feel pressure from diners resulting in “we have to have a kid’s menu” syndrome. Then a menu is thrown together with the “price is right ingredients”. I mean, really, why waste good food on kids? Plus, parents are often looking for less expensive items on a children’s menu. Unfortunately that often results in using sub-par ingredients to lower the cost.
Mistake #3: The Trap and The pit of Doom
Once your child is old enough, they will likely have consumed some sort of standard kid food in their short lives. Be it French fries, hot dogs, chicken nuggets/fingers, they may have been served them in a pinch, eaten them at a friend’s house or had them at camp. If your child has managed to avoid the US kid food pit, kudos to both of you; you are a better parent than I. At seven, my son has had all the bad foods offered to him (save for the fast food chain versions of them, which I still have managed to curtail). He’s eaten most of them, and notes that many of them taste good. That is, alas, “the Trap”. Once the “tastes good” label gets stuck on something, when you see it again, it spells “Doom”. Children’s Menus are a sort of doom, let me give ask you a question. If your adventurous eating child goes to a restaurant which serves many of his favorite adult foods and as soon as you are seated is presented by the waiter with the children’s choices, how will the scene play out? I’m hoping for both you and me, that the child has the gumption to stick with the more interesting choices. Often as not the kid’s menu has an allure that strong parents must face.
Prevention Tactics: You may prevent the pit from looming by avoiding the kid’s menu being delivered to the table, or interrupting the waiter before they can offer it If your child is old enough to reason with and/or you’ve passed by the window of avoidance, I strongly encourage you to talk the choices out with your child, painting the boring kid’s food as boring and making the adult choice fascinating. If all else fails, order the kids food but make it come last (with the entrée) and order a fascinating appetizer and a share plate and hope there won’t be much room for the kid’s food – consider it dessert. I know this sounds wasteful, but it’s really part of eating in restaurants in the first place. The real issue here is that kids grow up and hopefully will choose good food throughout their lives over boring, fried, industrial food. If you only ever eaten French fries why ever order a baked purple potato?
Mistake #4: The Monkey Chases the Weasel…
Imagine you’ve only ever worn red or white shirts. Your mom takes you to a store and they only have all the other colors. What will you do? Throw a fit? Maybe… It depends on your personality, as it does your child’s. If your child has always ordered off the children’s menu, you had better watch out when you go someplace where kid food is not available. You might end up like a parent I know who had to “take food with them” when they went out to dinner at friend’s house/ You had also better become an expert at managing a restaurant melt-down. Imagine sending this child to a friend’s house or on a trip where they are taken out to dinner and there is no kid’s menu…
Mistake #5: Children Aren’t Expected Here…
I assume that all good restaurants are aware that children might want to eat with their parents. At the other side of the dining spectrum are the restaurants, who despite the trend of well heeled (and/or enlightened) parents including their tykes on trips to their tony establishments, are met with a perplexed silence when a child’s portion is sought. This is especially challenging in the “tasting menu” restaurants.
Tactics: If the menus are pricey I encourage parents to call ahead and see if a pared down menu can be accommodated or if there is any objection to a shared plate. We recently were faced with this challenge in New York. At he first tasting menu restaurant we ended up ordering the full menu (we ordered the least number of courses). At the second restaurant we were given the option of ordering a special entrée (picking the main ingredient of fish, meat or fowl). We chose fish and our little diner was presented with slightly larger portion of the fish course in the tasting menu and share plates with the other courses (as well as included in the amuse and the dessert for about 30% of the cost of the full menu).
It doesn’t always go so well. If you are going to a restaurant that simply will not cater to a smaller appetite (our almost 7 year makes about 4 courses of a tasting menu before he’s simply eaten enough) then you need to be prepared to: pay for the whole thing; leave your child at home; or if possible negotiate a deal in advance. I like to go in cold and see what the chef will do – it’s really a nod to a chef who will accommodate a seasoned young eater, but it may cost you. From the restaurant’s standpoint, I do acknowledge that some kitchens offering a tasting menu-only experience are not set up to prepare a special meal outside the spectrum of what’s on the tasting menu. I, however, do appreciate when an effort is made to make a smaller portion or fewer courses, etc for a reduced price. I don’t expect it, though, perhaps I should. Usually our son is the only child in the restaurant. He’s had some of the greatest food epiphanies eating wild and wonderful (and gorgeous) tasting menu dishes.
Imagine food as art. The more you expose yourself to art the more you determine what you like and what you don’t like, and the more you can appreciate really good art – even when you don’t necessarily like it. Tastes change, but children (and people in general) first have to taste lots of different tastes, to truly have a preference.
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