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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