The assault (and insult) of children’s menus

by Christina on May 29, 2010

One of our favorite local restaurants lists grilled cheese on both its regular menu and its children’s menu. Same price. Same bread options (wheat, rye, sourdough). But where the regular menu touts “aged” cheddar, the kiddie version offers “mild” cheddar.
 
The first time I noticed this, I asked the server about the difference, thinking “mild” meant “processed.” That is the kiddie default, after all: American cheese on white bread. (So score one for our local eatery — not a white slice in sight.)
 
No, I was told, they’re exactly the same. Actual cheddar cheese.
 
Good, right? Except why the different wording? It’s hardly a serious infraction. And very possibly it wasn’t even on purpose. But it does show, in a small way, how restaurants view children: “Aged” cheddar = sophisticated = something kids won’t eat. “Mild” cheddar = bland = kid food.
 

Kiddie menu staple

There’s more. Like the “chocolate or white?” that follows a milk order. (Last I checked, milk from a cow is white. It’s not white milk. It’s milk.) And the immediate offer of crackers to placate the little darlings, even though they’re capable of waiting for their meal like the other humans at the table. And, of course, the ubiquitous chicken fingers and fries. Kid dining defined.

I’ve always thought of children’s menus as a modern invention, right next to Ronald McDonald and TV dinners and other 1950s-60s industrial-food conveniences marketed as ways to ease up on the little lady. But in fact children’s menus have been around since at least the 1930s and likely back to the turn of the century. And if I came across one of those today, I’d call it quaint and frame it.
 
So it’s not the concept of a children’s menu that bothers me. It’s the content. If a restaurant wants to offer half-size (and half-price) portions of adult meals, terrific. And some do, even if they don’t publicize it. But the standard kids’ menu is a roster of cheap, processed junk: not only fried chicken bits, but also hot dogs, day-glo mac and cheese, and pizza-flavored cardboard. Which is why restaurants can offer deals on those items that they can’t (or won’t) on the regular menu.
 
What’s most offensive, though, is not that restaurants are trying to make a buck. It’s that they offer this stuff because, you know, that’s what kids eat. Why else do you find chicken fingers and boxed mac and cheese even in ethnic eateries and upscale restaurants with otherwise adventurous fare?
 
One New York City restaurateur — Nicola Marzovilla, of I Trulli — caused a stir this week when he was profiled in the New York Times for his views on children’s menus, which he refuses to offer, calling them “dumbed down” and “the death of civilization.”
 
But even as I was shouting out a big amen, I knew, as I read that, how unusual Marzovilla is. And it called to mind another New York Times story from three years ago, in which writer David Kamp described his transformation from appreciating children’s menus to hating them. In that piece, memorably headlined, “Don’t Point That Menu at My Child, Please,” Kamp wrote: “The standard children’s menu is regressive, encouraging children (and their misguided parents) to believe that there is a rigidly delineated ‘kids’ cuisine’ that exists entirely apart from grown-up cuisine.”
 
It’s true. Most restaurants treat kids like picky eaters with miraculously absent taste buds. It’s also true that somebody is ordering this stuff for their kids, or restaurants wouldn’t keep selling it. But plenty of us aren’t. Or at least most of the time we aren’t. My 6-year-old has been eating in all kinds of restaurants since her highchair days, and while she’s had more grilled cheese and pizza than I’d like to admit (though rarely off the children’s menu), she’s mostly eaten what we eat. To her, the children’s menu is something on which to color and play tic-tac-toe.
 
And, for now, anyway, a lesson in what not to eat.
 
How do you feel about children’s menus? Love them, tolerate them, want to ball them up and throw them in the deep-fryer? Tell me what you think.
 
With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back Fridays, Food Revolution Fridays and Vegetarian Foodie Fridays. Check out the links for other posts about real food.

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Scatteredmom May 29, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I HATE kid’s menus. We had a real eye opener when we started doing road trips in the USA when Jake was 7 and discovered what those menus are like, in all the western states of the USA. They are all the SAME in every stinkin’ restaurant. Jake ordered from the adult menu instead, or shared with us. But instead of being offered milk of any color, he has always been offered Coke first, and the servers always seemed shocked when he asks for water (lactose intolerant).

Again, it’s assuming that’s all kids will eat on the part of the adults. We really need to change that attitude.

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2 Christina May 29, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Yes, the soda listed on kids’ menus drives me insane. (That’s a whole other post.) We don’t drink milk in restaurants because we’re weirded out by where it comes from (i.e., not organic, not pastured), so it’s always water for us, too. But I’ve been with others who’ve ordered milk, and that “chocolate or white?” thing gets me every time.

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3 Shannon May 29, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I despise kids’ menus with a passion.

We have a restaurant rule with our children that has been there since day 1. They must eat the cuisine of a restaurant we are in at that point in time (and pizza does not equal Italian, unless we are at a pizza place). We will order kids’ items, if they are mini-versions of the adult meal, but not if they are processed junk. We will also have them split an adult meal between the two of them which works pretty well (assuming they both want the same thing).

In the process, my son’s favorite restaurant is a local Japanese place and my daughter’s is Thai. We can take them anywhere and they can find menu items they like and/or want to try. They are more than willing to try new things too, and I firmly believe it’s because we never had a kid food regime at our house to begin with.

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4 Marie May 29, 2010 at 3:58 pm

My kids happily eat what is offered, unless there is a children’s menu, then they suddenly crave hot dogs and mac-and-cheese. Thanks for writing about this.

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5 Amanda Dittlinger May 29, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I hate kid menus too. Most of the time I either “modify” the kids menu or I order an adult item and split it between my kids. One time at PeiWei I ordered the kids LoMein, assuming it was a smaller size of the adult LoMein. Nope. It was plain noodles and plain chicken. My girls looked at me like I was nuts and then ate my dinner. The next time we went I ordered them the adult menu item that at least had vegetables and flavor!

I do allow my kids to eat kids menu items occasionally, since we rarely have these items at home. But we talk about how it is a “sometimes” food. But most of the time given the choice between a grilled chicken breast or a pizza they choose the chicken.

-Amanda Dittlinger

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6 kristi May 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm

We don’t eat out often. Dining in a restaurant with a three-year-old and two 19-month-olds is something neither my husband nor I would place under the category of “enjoyable.” However, on the rare occasion when I’ve eaten out with my three-year-old, I always order for her off of the adult menu. “Kids menu” means nothing to her. She’s never had a hot dog or a chicken nugget, and I think she’s eaten about five french fries in her entire life. I don’t order them for myself, and I don’t order them for her either.

This is a really important topic, and I’m so glad you’re writing about it. I feel like I need to pass it on to my entire family, who believes I am “damaging” my children for having the food rules I do, except for the fact that I’m certain they’d find my blog if I did.

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7 Sam May 29, 2010 at 8:45 pm

I only like them if they include peanut butter and honey sandwich (The Gate House :) when I have forgotten to bring some for my son who doesn’t eat anything :) Supertaster! what’s so super about it again? ugh!

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8 Diana May 29, 2010 at 9:44 pm

We rarely eat out, so I usually allow my son to eat of the kid’s menu as its a treat. We are pretty new to this REAL food thing as well, so it’s hard to break him of the habit of ordering from the kid’s menu. I do find them disgusting none-the-less. Especially when the menu advertises “Kraft” Mac & Cheese. Ummm.. can’t you at least make a homemade version? And there is usually NO vegetable options in the sides. I often times will allow him to order the disgusting main course of mac/cheese or chicken fingers but will ask for a side of veggies instead of the fries. Or at least a side of fruit. But at ethnic restaurants he eats ethnic food. He is a pretty good eater, so I don’t have to worry about the pickyness.

The restaurant portions are so big though, that he can often eat off of DH and my plates. Saves $$ and he doesn’t get the icky stuff! :)

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9 Melodie May 29, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I hate kid’s menus too. We usually order extra of something we like and then ask for extra plates for the kids and divvy it all up. Or we order an entree for then to split. Luckily for us, the kids don’t like what’s on the kid’s menus anyway! Thanks for linking with me!! :)

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10 Christina June 4, 2010 at 10:35 am

We often eat family-style in restaurants, as well, ordering, say, two entrees and a salad, then divvying it among the three of us.

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11 Shona May 30, 2010 at 1:45 am

Argh, kids menus bug me to no end. A friend and I were at a pizza restaurant and could not order a vegetable pizza for our kids off the kids menu. We could order a “cheeseburger pizza” but not a vegetable one. I was so frustrated that I almost left. Had it not been for the starving children I probably would have. Luckily my 3yo can’t read yet and doesn’t understand the concept of a kids menu and generally prefers food with more flavor then the options on the kids menu. We almost always order her own adult portion and give her the leftovers for lunch the next day. Either that or she splits a meal with me.

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12 Christina June 4, 2010 at 10:47 am

That’s so ridiculous about the pizza. It reminds me of being stuck in a chain restaurant with some acquaintances (their choice) and finding extremely slim pickings except for the surprising presence of a veggie burger. The kids’ menu had a hamburger listed, at a lower price than both the hamburger and veggie burger on the adult menu, so I asked if we could sub the veggie burger instead, at the kid menu price. The waitress did it, but only after sighing at me like I’d just asked her to hand-craft the veggie burger herself. Sadly, it just never occurs to these restaurants that plenty of kids actually like veggie pizzas or veggie burgers.

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13 Marie May 30, 2010 at 10:27 am

Now I’m suddenly all aware of kid menus!
We went out for breakfast this morning and they had a GREAT kids’ menu. So maybe things are changing. Essentially, smaller portion sizes of the adult menu, with no fried potatoes or processed meats. My kids ordered bacon anyway — I guess they know by now not to be limited by the menu. Anyway, was thrilled to see that and hoping for more positive changes.

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14 Christina June 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

So glad to hear this. Thanks for letting us know.

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15 Audrey May 30, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I hate kids menus so much. I especially hate the ones with pictures. My 2-year-old can’t read, but she can certainly identify a picture of a hot dog or mac and cheese when she sees one (thank you to the in-laws who feed her nothing but junk when she goes to their house).

Great post!

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16 Rachel P. May 31, 2010 at 11:09 pm

I never realized the damage children’s menus could cause until I met my husband and went to dinner with his family once at a wonderful authentic Mexican restaurant. His two sisters, in their late teens at the time, both order chicken strips and fries for their meals. My mouth was hanging open and gave me away to my mother in law who laughed and said they had, “yet to grow up.” My parent’s raised me with the rule of eating the food specialized by the establishment no matter what my age. As a parent now, I have been chastised by people when I encourage my six year old to choose something in a restaurant he may not be familiar with. There is something very wrong when we begin to think children can’t enjoy unique, healthy foods and cultivate an adventurous palate.

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17 Oregongirl June 1, 2010 at 11:57 am

I’ve always told my daughter that she has to try foods over and over again, because her tastebuds live and die over time, so that will affect how foods last to her. When she was about 6 yo we went to a Moroccan restaurants and ate feast style and I told her she had to try everything – I just didn’t tell her what any of it was. She didn’t like any of the lamb dishes. Fast forward 18 months or so and we are heading back to this same restaurant. At first she says to me, “Mommy – be sure to tell me which dishes are lamb, since I don’t like lamb.” Then about 10 minutes later she comes back and says, “Nevermind, maybe I’ll like lamb now.” And she DID!

She has eaten her fair share of chicken nuggets off children’s menus, but as our at home eating style has changed over the years, so has her eating-out style. She is willing to try anything now and never orders off the kids menu.

I do believe it’s the parents job to educate children about food choices. Not the restaurant owners. Restaurants are still for-profit organizations. So, if they can make an extra buck over-charging for a poor meal, well, that’s a freedom they have – and the parents too.

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18 Christina June 4, 2010 at 10:55 am

I love how open your daughter was to the possibility that her tastes may have changed. Stories like this reinforce that kids are able and eager to learn about food, just like the grown-ups.

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19 Renee June 1, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I sunk in a sea of criticism from FAMILY when my daughter began vegan solids in addition to breastmilk at 4 or 5 months of age. A bit extreme, maybe… HOWEVER, exercising and experimenting with the Good Theories and Ideals of life, living, eating, being… especially with raising kids (HAIL Spoonfed!!), must be seen as a good thing. I still cringe every time my 3 year old asks for Spongebob mac n cheese or bland cheap hot dogs and rejects the kale-veggie-tofu stir fry she used to gobble up before she knew any better…

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20 Rachel June 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

I don’t fix separate food for my 2 year old son at home, so when we go out to eat he gets part of what my husband and I order. Although, he does love French fries, so we usually allow that if he asks. Of course we go out to eat maybe every 6-7 weeks so it isn’t causing any harm and I don’t worry that he’ll go crazy eating junk at someone else’s house.

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21 Emily June 1, 2010 at 11:18 pm

I hate kids menus. We typically modify them. I look at them, give them their options, then plug in what I want, not what some crappy menu offers. A lot of the time I find the healthiest option on the menu then subsitute the sides with a fruit/vegetable option. My kids are allowed 1 cup of juice a day at dinner, which is usually when we go out to eat so I’ll ask the waiter to please bring an extra cup so I can water down the juice. Sometimes if the menu is just disgusting junk, we’ll split an adult portion or share our meal with them and order healthy sides. You’ve got to be creative and be willing to ask the waiter to make a new meal option for you!

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22 Christina June 4, 2010 at 11:04 am

So true. Look at the menu as a starting point, then go from there. What’s sometimes surprising is how rigid restaurants get about substituting sides. It’s pretty common, for instance, to charge extra for replacing fries with fresh fruit. Of course that’s because they can make a boatload of fries for very little money.

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23 Rachel Huddleston June 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm

We just use our menus for coloring too! :)

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24 Bill June 3, 2010 at 1:23 am

Great timing. I just got back from a trip to Toronto w/ my 8-yr-old and brought back the kids’ menu from the Rainforest Cafe to show my wife, I was so disgusted with it. Starting off with my error in assuming the words “rainforest” and “cafe” meant relatively healthy food. My favorite though was that the entire “playful” part of the menu (crossword, find-the-words, etc.) dealt with good food and nutrition. For instance, “junk food” was the answer to a crossword clue. And what was on the front of the menu? Chickenfinger thingies, fries, hot dogs, popcorn shrimp, chocolate pudding with gummy worms (yes gummy worms) and oreos, and of course, the trash-can size “collectible” plastic cup for your soda or frozen sugar-slushie.
I kept turning the damn thing over thinking I was missing something: front page, back page, front page, back page. Amazing.
As for normal dining out, since our two usual restaurants are thai and sushi, kids’ menus never work their way into the ordering.

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25 Christina June 4, 2010 at 11:12 am

Oh, I’d laugh if that weren’t so pathetic. My daughter loves noodles and (veg) sushi, too. Though how crazy is it that I’ve seen chicken fingers even in those places? Unbelievable.

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26 Shea M. June 3, 2010 at 10:35 am

It’s really encouraging to see so many parents recalling how their young children are actually quite adventurous eaters. As a newlywed, and only in the “thinking about kids” phase, one of my big worries has been dining out options; we love to go out, but I don’t want my future kids to be eating the junk on kids menus. Thanks for the encouragement; it reinforces my beliefs that kids will eat mostly whatever you tell them to, and that the majority of picky eating is cultural, not physical or unavoidable. Most of it is in their minds.

Thanks again!

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27 Judy June 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm

I also dislike children’s menus! My husband and I encourage our 6-year old to eat the cuisine of the restaurant in which we’re dining, and when planning a cruise when she was only 4, we checked to be sure that she was eligible to order off the regular menu at all times – she was, and she did. My daughter is not dumb, and I don’t want her treated this way. She has a palate, and knows what that palate likes – including sharp cheddar, Roquefort and bleu d’Auvergne blue cheeses, sashimi and sushi, and a well-spiced dal. Right now we’re looking at the possibility of a dairy (and possibly) beef allergy, so some of her choices will have to go out the window for now, but we’re certainly not replacing them with processed crap or insipid kids’ “cuisine.” Oh, how I hate that term.

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28 Christina June 4, 2010 at 11:16 am

Isn’t it great when kids develop those palates? Sounds like our 6-year-olds would have a good time at dinner together.

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29 Ms. Whiteplates June 3, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Out of necessity I rarely order from the “kid’s menu” (my kids have dairy allergies) but even if I could those things are an insult to my children, and all children who are treated with any iota of decency and respect. If you treat a kid like they could only possibly eat neon cardboard, I mean mac ‘n’ cheez (yes, that’s on purpose), then not only will they eat that crap up, but you are doing your children a disservice. My kids are a lot like Judy’s kids: sashimi, almost all veggies including beets and broccoli, goat milk, and a myriad of fantastic foods that they will always eat.

You know, it makes it a hell of a lot harder that my children can’t eat dairy (cow’s milk to be specific) but in a way it’s a blessing: almost all processed food is out and I very quickly had to learn about food and for that I am thankful.

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30 Christina June 4, 2010 at 11:24 am

Indeed it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why it drives me nuts to hear people talk about how kids will eat only food that’s colored/chemicalized/processed to death. Yes, that’s true. If that’s the only thing they’re offered. Not sure whether you saw my post about banning the phrase “picky eater,” but it addressed this very issue.

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31 Rachel Huddleston June 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm

What bothers me about the actual food being…ummm, “cooked?” (I think they just heat up the box now, right?) is that all of this stuff could be delicious and healthy. Mac and cheese is very good made from whole grain macaroni noodles and a few cheeses (including goat) depending on your child’s allergies to them. It doesn’t take very long to cook. As long as you tell your kids it is mac and cheese they will eat it and love it!
Pizza dough made from scratch with some fresh tomato sauce, and an assortment of veggies on top is not hard to make. It’s still pizza to the child. Just take a picture of what you are cooking and put it on the menu, let the kids pick what looks good to them. Mine would all eat veggie pizzas. It’s pizza!
Are these restaurants just too busy to take the time to “cook” the kiddie stuff? I mean, it’s just so much easier to heat it up in the microwave. Or maybe it means less money for the restaurant to bring in more fresh ingredients, but wouldn’t they attract more parents with families meaning more profit? I’d like to hear the reasons why they think the way they do.

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32 Christina June 4, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I think it’s a combination of things. First, yes, it’s about money. Standard kid-menu fare is cheap, cheap, cheap. And it’s fast. And restaurants make their money on the higher-priced items on the adult menu, including alcohol. Or, in the case of chain or fast-serve restaurants, they make money on sheer volume. In both cases, they really want to attract the adult patrons, so kid food is an afterthought, something to appease the little ones while mom and dad spend money.

But there’s also just this entrenched notion that kids want this stuff. And of course many do, because that’s all they’ve known. So it becomes a vicious cycle. And the only way we break that is by not buying into it.

Some restaurants do get it. Mostly small, local ones, I think. But that David Kamp article I linked to above mentions efforts by Ritz-Carlton and Disney to improve children’s menus in their properties, partly because more parents were starting to order off the adult menu for their kids. So that’s an example of how parents can make a difference. But that article was three years ago, and it’s not like we’ve seen widespread adoption of healthier kid menus. So, just as with school food, we have to keep plugging along and make our feelings known.

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33 Alecta Megarea June 4, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Hi!

A HEARTY amen to this! I remember very distinctly being about 4 years old and objecting to the patronization that is the “kiddie” menu. I never would order off of one, nor would my son as a general rule. I ate regular food because that is what we ate.
My son has always been an enthusiastic trencherman, considering brussels sprouts a treat, and loving all kinds of ethnic food. I boggle at how parents feed their children this pap, and angst over picky eaters, when they’ve created this monster by ordering the pseudo-food and talking about how vegetables are good for them, implying that they’re not tasty.

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34 Dini June 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm

LOL! It amazes me when adults assume that kids won’t like ethnic foods. Guess what? Mexican kids like Mexican food. Indian kids like Indian food (though I was amazed once when an Indian restaurant owner (he was Indian) came over to comment when my son (4 I think) ordered off the regular menu. And ate some of my vindaloo. Kids like what you expect them to like, generally.
Also I HATE those cookbooks that advocate disguising vegetables in chocolate cake or whatever other “kidfood”. If you lie to your kids about what you’re feeding them it’s gonna effect your relationship with them, and not in a good way.

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35 Christina June 4, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Great point about Mexican kids, Indian kids, etc. It’s all about the exposure, right? And I’m so with you on disguising vegetables. Can. Not. Stand. Those. Cookbooks. Not only are you lying to your kids, but you’re teaching them that vegetables are something to be endured instead of enjoyed.

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36 Nipa June 4, 2010 at 10:47 pm

And I know this blog post is about kids’ menus (loved them and now hate them) but how different are “adult menus”?

I spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong at a time when “western” restaurants were a rarity. We ate mostly at home, but every few weeks we would eat dinner at a Chinese, Thai or Indonesian restaurant where there wasn’t a kid menu or toy in sight. We ordered sparingly (no doggie bags) and each ate a little of everything. Along came McDonalds which offered Big Mac keychains to those who could sing the jingle they featured in their commercials. Kids and adults alike, lined up to win their souvenirs. Pizza Hut was next, offering an all you can eat salad buffet. Again, kids and adults competed to pile up iceberg lettuce, and dried out carrots in bowls. I still remember one customer layer cucumber slices around the edge of the bowl essentially making it bigger. She sat at the table next to us and barely touched her giant salad. Even after living here for twenty years, I still find it amazing that eating out is such a game (all-you-can eat, buy one get one free etc), for kids and adults alike. It takes the focus away from tasting to simply consuming, especially consuming large quantities.

And then there’s the matter of how restaurant food is prepared and cooked. Perhaps I was just naive, but there was a time I thought that french fries were just potatoes sliced and fried in the restaurant kitchen. It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease that we started to ask for the actual ingredients in everything we ordered. We were horrified to find out how many foods are dusted with wheat. Even eateries (I must admit I am thinking about chain restaurants rather than family owned ones or fine dining establishments) that boast healthy options pour their eggs out of cartons. Now when I open up a menu and read the description of each item, I try to guess how many additives, preservatives, artificial flavors and other junk came in the box along with the food. I didn’t realize that grilled chicken with lemon and basil or black bean soup each required twenty or so ingredients. I’ve made both at home with just a few.

Now, I’ve never worked at a restaurant so I don’t know how big of a hurdle it is to make everything from scratch but I feel like we need a Jamie’s Food Revolution in restaurants as well as schools. Like David Kamp I was once grateful for kids menus as my son would throw up any time we pushed him to taste something he didn’t like, and because, just once in a while I needed a break from cooking and “chicken and fries” were the only thing that would make him sit still while we ate. We still struggle to get decent food into our kids, partly from our own mistakes but also because it’s hard to escape the “food as entertainment” culture around us. You’re right Chris, it’s a vicious cycle, and like many of your other readers, we try to break the cycle by limiting how much we eat out to the bare minimum.

Oh wait, that doesn’t eliminate the problem. Even Annie’s Homegrown shapes their pasta like cartoon characters. My younger son said the other day “grownups should eat grown up food and kids should eat kid food” Ouch.

I’d love to hear about restaurants that offer real food, and that are kid friendly without the gimmicks. The only one I can think of is Food at Fisher Station which only offers breakfast as some lunches. Now, I know the food is not organic nor is it especially healthy, but it is made from scratch, no-frills and inexpensive. Anyone have any real food restaurant recommendations (I’d be especially thrilled to find ones that offer gluten-free meals)? Or any tips on changing our kids’ perspective on food once they’ve gotten used to having “kid food”?

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37 Christina June 7, 2010 at 10:45 am

I think at one time restaurant food probably was prepared the way you describe. But as the overall food culture changed (for the worse), so, too, did the restaurant scene. I do think there are plenty of local restaurants, though, that still cook mostly from scratch, especially with the increasing popularity of eating local and seasonal foods.

Ones that come immediately to mind here in Rochester: Good Luck, Lento, Open Face Sandwich Eatery, Natural Oasis and a new one about to open on Marshall Street called The Owl House. But there are others, including many ethnic eateries (we like Aladdin’s and Sinbad’s, but also any number of Thai and Indian places). And I’d be surprised if at least a couple of those didn’t offer gluten-free options.

Nationally, people might check Local Harvest and the Eat Well Guide for ideas. I’ve also had luck Googling keywords (organic, vegetarian, gluten-free, grass-fed, etc.).

I think the key is to avoid the chains and fast-serve places and go local. We’ve never worried too much about whether a restaurant is “kid-friendly,” since that in itself seems to set low expectations.

As for changing perspectives on “kid food,” I think it’s a matter of doing what you probably already are: continuing to expose them to real, wholesome food, and emphasizing that it tastes good (not just that it’s good for them). Also offering wholesome sweets/treats so this doesn’t become about denial. It’s all about consistency and reinforcement, so don’t be hard on yourself because there are still some blips. You’re doing great.

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38 MP3 June 6, 2010 at 10:15 am

What Nipa said! I cringe when my brother’s kids order the ubiquitous chicken finger-fries. Yet, I cannot convince them to go to a non-chain restaurant with me where there would be more variety to my liking. And that is a product of their parents.
Their father and I grew up in a household when food choices were extremely limited – there just wasn’t the variety of foods in a grocery store or produce aisle there is now. And food was more expensive as a portion of wages – it took up more of the family budget than it does now. The most ethnic of food we ate when we were growing up was spaghetti. And to this day I can’t eat meatloaf – even though I know I can make it into something completely different than what was served to us growing up.
While I managed to break out of that pattern and began to cook much more adventurously (even that summer standby devilled eggs I flavour with things like red curry paste, or mango chutney and curry – yummm!), he has not broken out. So his kids have grown up on the same boring diet he and I grew up with.
Kids menus flourish and do so well because parents let them flourish. If the menus didn’t do so well- if there was no demand, and if they didn’t make the restaurant money, they wouldn’t be offered.

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39 Christina June 7, 2010 at 10:54 am

What’s so interesting to me is that people complain about how much food costs, and yet think nothing of spending a lot of money on non-necessities. Not to mention that the price we pay for food is nowhere near its actual cost, thanks to government subsidies and inferior ingredients.

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40 christine June 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

oh children’s menus were not an issue until my daughter started to read. .

AHHHHHHH.

we enjoy eating out and always gave her choices off the appetizer menu or something to split off the entree.

BUT now is a different story, as she can read it all for herself. and i laughed at the rainforest cafe post. there i just let it be, nothing you can do but save that place for a once in a blue moon trip.

we try to frequent smaller places that are known for quality so that mac n’cheese is homemade orecchiette with real cheese OR the burritos are on whole wheat wraps with slices of avocado. and if i am lucky i’ll just slide the children’s menu over to me and give her my menu.

hoping this conversation just keeps going because it is desperately needed. and thank you for all the knowledgable links. farm to table is not a trend—it is what will help save our economy and our health.

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41 Justine June 7, 2010 at 4:42 pm

I think there could be value in kid’s menus if what they really meant were smaller versions of adult meals, designed to appeal to kids. What I don’t like is the standard list of grilled cheese, pasta, chicken fingers, pizza. And no veggie sides.

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42 Jennifer : Omaha Pilates Training June 7, 2010 at 5:54 pm

I totally agree with you about the kid’s menu. I always think, “Where the hell are the veggies?” Very few restaurants we’ve been to offer anything decent in the way of children’s fare. I like the concept that a few incorporate of half-orders of anything from the menu. Now that offers some real choices. Not chicken fingers w/fries or mac and cheese.

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43 Angela June 7, 2010 at 11:07 pm

That makes me think of an option here at a local place…
They offer either godl fish crackers or carrots with ranch.. What a choice…ugh

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44 Angela June 7, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I agree…
I tend to look over the choices and in most cases add additional items to my choice and ask for extra plates.
It really gets me how they make processed mac and cheese and then charge five bucks for dried junk. That choice is never an option for my children.
Luckily we live in a small town (1 year left here, due to military) and there are limited eateries. So choices are slim from the get go.

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45 Angie June 14, 2010 at 12:17 am

Balled-up and deep-fried sounds like the perfect thing to do to them! My kids order off the regular menu…..1/2 plate sizes if available. If they aren’t available abd then wait-staff point out “That’s a lot of food for a child” I say, “Well it’s a lot of food for me too so you can bring my a couple of take-out boxes and then we’ll have left-overs.”

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46 Christina June 14, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Just a heads-up for anyone following comments on this post: I just posted a new piece about a chef asking for parent input on his new children’s menu. Here’s your chance to talk straight to the kitchen.

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47 Raine June 16, 2010 at 9:42 am

Christina –

Great topic! I didn’t have time to read through all your comments here, but this is an important discussion for certain. One thing I know about kid’s menus (besides the fact that they are not healthy) is that they are largely the cause of making children finicky and unwilling to eat real food. If your child has these horrible choices everywhere he or she goes, eventually it’s a guarantee that the palette will no longer want anything but garbage.

When we go out to eat, we normally do the 1/2 entree meal for our son or appetizer of something that is nourishing and healthy (as healthy as you can get in a restaurant – although some select restaurants are a lot better than others). And sometimes we get the question about it being too much for a child, but I’d rather help him eat it or take it home than pay good money for a pile of garbage that isn’t even food.

Why can’t restaurants serve small steaks with vegetables, potatoes, and butter or pieces of chicken on the bone with the same sides?

What has been stated about a change in food served at restaurants is true – it’s probably only been in the last 50 years or so that food has become what it is, and is increasingly more that way. Real food used to be served in restaurants, but it’s been a gradual shift from real to fake.

Here is a link to a post I did about this same topic on my site:

http://www.agriculturesociety.com/?p=2151

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48 Christina June 16, 2010 at 10:07 am

“…they are largely the cause of making children finicky and unwilling to eat real food.”

Nodding head over here. Though, of course, someone is ordering that food, too. So it goes both ways.

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49 Andy June 18, 2010 at 2:45 pm

This reminds me of when the dining halls at my college had a “kids’ night” when they served kid food. Chicken nuggets, fries, mac and cheese — the works. I hated it! This definitely wasn’t the food of my childhood, when mac and cheese, if it was served at all, was homemade, and chicken actually looked like it came from an animal.

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50 Christina June 21, 2010 at 11:42 am

I don’t even know where to go with this one. I guess the college was going for some weird nostalgia thing. But I’m with you. Ick.

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51 Christina July 2, 2010 at 4:29 am

A heads-up for those following comments: A month ago I wrote this diatribe against children’s menus, calling them out for being unhealthy and insulting. I followed up with one chef’s quest to build a better children’s menu. Readers weighed in. Now it’s the chef’s turn. Brian Van Etten, of The Owl House in Rochester, N.Y., tells us what he thought of our ideas. And what he’s going to feed our kids. Check it out here.

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52 Jill July 27, 2010 at 8:05 pm

My two year old and I ate at one of the “Jamie’s Italian” restaurants that Jamie Oliver is opening around the UK (and even spotted him there!) a few months ago. What a great attitude towards children they have there. Portion size was great – really manageable. Wonderful choices – it’s an Italian restaurant, so there was a familiar starch family to pair new veggies with. They had a children’s drink (cordial) that came in a carafe with a glass (made of glass! imagine!) – and soda wasn’t offered. And if you ate up, you didn’t automatically get the whopping scoop of ice cream we’ve come to expect here in the US. You got a pin that said “I ate all my greens at Jamie’s” – my little one was thrilled with the experience. They did have ice cream available, though! I hope to see something similar stateside, soon.

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53 Christina July 27, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Oh, that sounds like such a neat place. Love the carafe and the pin. I want that pin!

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54 Sara June 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Totally new here, and possibly going to cause a stir with my comment, but here goes a perspective from the other side of the coin. My son is not a child with an adventurous palette. He SCREAMED at every new solid food for the first two years of his life. The goal at that point became this – get him to eat something – anything! – solid and get a base to work from to build up to the whole grains, veggies, fruits, etc. that I prefer. So unfortunately we were a chicken nugget family for longer than I care to admit. But thankfully patience, encouragement, creativity, stern guidance when needed, and as many positive conversations and hands-on learning opportunities with food (involving him in baking, growing our own tomatoes, trips to farmer’s markets, smelling fruits, veggies and herbs at the grocery, reading stories about farmers, etc.) are starting to pay off. He honestly still tests us with nearly every new food but for the most part he knows that he’s not allowed to complain until he’s at least TRIED the new food. His palette has grown to willingly eating a wide assortment of fruits, veggies, cheeses, meats and carbs. We don’t buy chicken nuggets for the house any more. Oddly, his little brain has always KNOWN junk food from healthy food. He never fights us on junk, just on things that are good for him. So on the rare occasion we actually go out, we just welcome the break. To have creativity and not lose our cool on the food front at home requires character-building patience and diligent persistence on our part. It’s nice in a restaurant to just let him enjoy himself, even if it means letting him have the kid’s nuggets, the occasional fry or fruit substitution and juice or milk. We’re usually just all grateful for the opportunity to just be out and build a fun family memory together. We always continue the food lessons when we return home. I’m confident that with our consistency at home, in time, he’ll have an adventurous palette out too.

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55 Christina June 27, 2011 at 2:30 am

Sara, no stirring detected (though stirring is always welcome). Sounds like you’ve handled things beautifully.

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56 Marie June 22, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Sara,
What a great and awe-inspiring job you are doing with your son! I cannot imagine the patience that it takes (our challenges are in other areas). The only thing more trying might be trying to expand the limited palette of an adult. ha ha.
I can totally appreciate wanting to make the occasional dinner out be fun and special for all of you. The good news is, I suspect that there are plenty of restaurants that offer fries, nuggets, pasta, etc. And when he is interested / ready / has a new favorite food, hopefully there will also be restaurants that will serve that in a kids’ portion as well.
Happy eating!

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57 Sara June 22, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Marie – Thanks for the encouragement. Sometimes, with the portion sizes at restaurants, I wish I could order my favorite foods in a kids’ size portion! :)

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58 Marie June 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm

ha ha ha – I agree!

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59 Ange July 17, 2012 at 11:01 pm

I love it! I love all the ideas of making the kids try the foods of the ethnicity of the restaurant. We are a half Asian family so we normally eat at local Asian restaurants (I’m the white half and have yet to learn to cook my husbands favorite foods) and our kids love the rice noodles, curries, etc. We also eat our fair share of Indian and they love that as well. Now we are dealing with soy, wheat and dairy allergies with our 2 year old so that virtually eliminates the kids menu. We happened into Applebees one day because my mom was taking us out and the waiter was appalled that we weren’t getting our kids food off the kid’s menu because it was half price kid day. We told him our son had allergies and our daughter has taken to soup anytime we go out lately and he was still going “But, they’re only 1.99.”

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60 Christina July 17, 2012 at 11:22 pm

“But they’re only $1.99!” — behold the rationale that drives fast-food “value menus” everywhere. It’s cheap, so you must eat it! Sigh.

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61 Michele Hays October 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm

We have left the world of the kids’ menu behind us…unless they hand one to my son and he eats it! However, when he was younger, I did discover that ordering off the appetizer menu was frequently a good way to go.

One of my favorite “kid” menu items at a local pan-Asian eatery: sides of steamed broccoli. I love them for doing that (especially since their broccoli is perfect.) Ever notice that vegetables – even plain, steamed ones – are almost never an option on the kid’s menu? Sometimes you’ll get lucky and have an option for applesauce or baked beans but usually it’s some form of pasta or potato, even if the adults are eating Asparagus souffle or Braised leeks.

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