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Creating a better children’s menu: A chef speaks

So this is fun. A month ago I wrote a diatribe against children’s menus, calling them out for being unhealthy and insulting. A lively discussion ensued. Then Brian Van Etten, the chef at The Owl House, a new restaurant in Rochester, N.Y., got in touch. He wanted input on his children’s menu. I posed the question to readers. Another lively discussion all around.     

Now Brian weighs in. What did he think of our ideas? What’s realistic (and not so much)? And what is he going to feed our kids?     

First of all, thanks for the opportunity to take a glimpse into the minds of parents regarding the possibilities for the ideal children’s menu. I fully feel that the current “food revolution” is an incredibly positive vehicle for changing the way that Americans eat, as well as developing the taste buds and palates of our youngest generation of foodies.     

For as long as I can remember, kids’ menus have been basically a hodgepodge of fried foods, more often than not brought in fully cooked and frozen, then quickly reheated (deep fried!) with a side of ketchup. Restaurant owners and their chefs have treated kids’ menus as an afterthought, if that.     

Even today, while planning tonight’s dinner menu for visiting extended family, I was completely baffled as to how I was going to please the four younger eaters. My mind jumped immediately toward simple, traditional “kid food”: pizza, pasta, blah, blah, blah. Fortunately, I’ve now been given a great deal of insight into the subject, and will be taking a brand-new approach toward pleasing not only the room full of adults, but the children as well.     

Your readers brought up some great points, and also delivered on some flavorful, mostly healthy and reasonable options to feed their children. On the other hand, some of the ideas proposed are a bit out there, requiring the purchase of extensive amounts of extra product, as well as extra space, time and preparation, none of which are easy to come by in a tiny commercial kitchen composed of three people. Our goal is to balance the desires of parents with the actuality of the kitchen. We’ll do what we can, with the time and space we have, and I truly feel we can accommodate everyone, a goal that this restaurant already has gone to great lengths to meet by making the menu accessible to all diets.     

Below is a brief response to some of the comments submitted by your readers.     

First and foremost, children will be presented with a separate menu, composed of the dishes that we feel best represent our kitchen’s philosophy: fresh, from scratch, New American food.     

The general outline of the menu will be half-portions of regular options. I’m proud of the menu we’ve put together, and I have complete faith in each and every dish. We’ve put a lot of time and thought into each item, and the balancing of tastes and textures. Simply put, this is great food. By presenting the same dishes to children, we’ll be truly testing the dishes and, at the same time, delivering flavorful, intelligent dishes to all patrons.     

Easy peasy

 That said, we’re planning (a few) additional items geared toward the needs of younger eaters. In addition to our rotating variety of inventive takes on grilled cheese, a more straightforward version will always be available. (Think New York cheddar and tomato jam on Baker Street bread.) We’ll also have a similar take on a flatbread, as we’ll always have a housemade roasted-garlic marinara and some great fresh mozzarella. I’m a big fan of the nut butter/bread/fruit plate that was mentioned, and that will be a breeze to accommodate. A nice portion of housemade almond butter, some local berries and a big whack of fresh-baked baguette. For those with gluten intolerance, at all times we’ll have a housemade gluten-free bread available. We’re also making hummus here, and will be glad to substitute that for the nut butter.     

For extremely picky eaters who like what we’re offering but need something substituted, we’ll try our best. There are reasonable substitutions, and then there are those people who want restaurant kitchens to give them the world. We’ll offer what we believe to be a happy medium.     

Unfortunately, some of the ideas were a bit too extensive. Offering a “build-your-own” platter is beyond the reach of this restaurant. We hope to be consistently busy, and delivering a plate of food hand-picked and customized to one customer, young or old, won’t work. The time it takes to prep, cook and plate something of that caliber would stop a kitchen dead in its tracks, and is something that just isn’t feasible in a place this small, and with such a small staff. Just taking an order with so many options, followed by entering the order into our computer system, would be enough to throw the very delicate rhythm of a restaurant out of whack.     

Third-sized portions are also not an option. Small commercial kitchens are very thought-out and methodical in the planning and preparation of dishes. Every scrap of bread, every slice of tomato, every portion of fish, tofu or what-have-you is prepared with precision. Even halving dishes has a great risk for waste, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take in order to fulfill the majority of needs that our diners have. Offering a third-sized portion in addition just won’t work.     

In the end, we’re doing what we know best. We’re making our food, the food we love to eat and, ideally, the food that everyone, young or old, will enjoy. Dumbing down dishes, deep-frying frozen processed chicken, and melting cheese over everything just won’t satisfy the needs of young eaters, or the needs of young restaurants with a passion for creativity and flavor.     

As for that family dinner tonight? I’m making tacos. Big bowls of beautiful tomatillo salsa, lemony sour cream, bright herby guacamole, tangy red cabbage and jicama slaw, crispy tilapia, well-seasoned grilled skirt steak, roasted marinated portobellos, and a big salad with organic greens and Lively Run feta. Big, bright flavors that I believe everyone can enjoy.     

Chris here again. The restaurant opens this month. I’m all over that cheddar and tomato jam sandwich. How about you? 

This post is linked into Foodie Tots’ Local Potluck Tuesdays and Real Food Wednesdays.

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{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Martha July 2, 2010, 6:39 am

    Sounds brilliant – sensible and scrumptious. The “easy peasy” plate looks appealing and accessible to the very young as well as the parents who may wish to finish off the plate after junior’s finished picking. The flatbread and marinara with mozzarella sounds delish too…. It seems that this kid’s menu will be simultaneously revolutionary and reasonable. (I did get carried away with options!)

    Hope you have great success, Brian!

  • Marie July 2, 2010, 8:36 am

    Thank you for this reply, and I have to say, this would totally accommodate our family, and sounds amazingly delicious.

  • Amy July 2, 2010, 2:23 pm

    I love it!! The easy peasy plate is definitely something I would order (and my kids would eat). Can’t wait to try out the new restaurant and thanks for highlighting this!! Your topics (and excellently written posts) always make me rethink something that I hadn’t shone much light on. We don’t eat out with the kids much, but am more likely to explore the adult menu and ask for 1/2 portions than I was before. We’ll see how the kids feel about it because once they get a glimpse of that cartoon filled kids menu (which we like for the diversion until dinner comes), it’s sometimes hard to get them to stop salivating over fried crap or mac n’ cheese. Suppose I could always bring my own diversion (yet another reason for you to get an iPhone Chris!) and skip the kids menu altogether….

    • Christina July 2, 2010, 10:49 pm

      No one’s touching that iPhone but me. Seriously. But I always carry a notepad, pen, markers, small puzzles and a mini deck of cards. That keeps Tess entertained while we wait for our food. Though, come to think of it, with the iPhone, now I can be entertained, too.

      BTW, I think it’s funny how a couple people have referred to the nut butter/bread/fruit plate as the “easy peasy plate.” That’s just the caption I wrote for the photograph. I’m thinking Brian might come up with a more appetizing name than that. LOL.

  • Christine July 2, 2010, 5:28 pm

    Thank you for the insight into what it’s like on the other side of that restaurant kitchen door.
    Our best solution for now is to order enough regular adult-sized dishes that everyone can share and have tastes, but we have a lot of kids and they are hearty eaters. Sometimes if we under-order a bit we have to get more food partway through the meal – this just happened the other day at an Indian restaurant (which, if your children like Indian food, is a great place for them to experience many different tastes).

  • Melodie July 2, 2010, 5:29 pm

    Wonderful to hear the feedback. I think you (chef) are doing great. I’d be happy to bring my kids to your restaurant anytime!

  • Alexandra July 3, 2010, 9:38 am

    We have a new French restaurant opening in Wellfleet, MA next week. Lots of kids will be eating there with parents, on vacation. This post has lots of good suggestions, so I will copy it out and give it to the chef. Thanks!

    • Christina July 5, 2010, 11:43 am

      That’s cool, Alexandra. Would love to know what the chef says.

  • Lisa Suriano July 5, 2010, 9:38 am

    This post was very interesting! It sounds like The Owl House is a place I would love to dine. (wish I lived closer!!!) Clearly Chef Brian is creative culinarian. I only wish there were thinkers like him in the corporate chain restaurant world. That is where a BIG part of the kid’s menu conundrum exists. Those restaurants reach so many American children. It would be amazing for the food revolution to reach that market, no?

    • Christina July 5, 2010, 11:58 am

      Boy would it be nice for chain restaurants to catch on. (Though, um, their adult menus could use a serious overhaul, too!) I actually have some related projects in the works, which I’ll be writing more about later.

  • Heather July 13, 2010, 1:00 am

    I think your ideas for a kids’ menu are brilliant! We have a 3 year-old and an almost 2 year-old, and our usual solution is just to order a little more adult food (an extra side dish or two or appetizer) and share everything around. As a result, my kids eat just about anything, from American to Indian to Vietnamese to you-name-it. They LOVE Vietnamese pho. If we get takeout pho & eat at home, I just put the broth in cups for them, and they drink it up–I think it was one of their first solid foods.

  • Tameri T. July 20, 2010, 5:38 pm

    I promoted your blog on mine. Excellent work!

    • Christina July 20, 2010, 8:49 pm

      Thanks, Tameri, for visiting, and for the link. Appreciate it!

  • Nipa September 21, 2010, 9:57 pm

    I haven’t had a chance to take my kids to the the Owl House but my husband and I did try it for ourselves … absolutely delicious! I had the smoked tofu sandwich, french fries and curried cashews and finished up with the vegan “cheesecake”. I was tempted to order more, but thought I’d better wait until next time… now I’m anxiously waiting for next time!

    • Christina September 21, 2010, 10:24 pm

      Agreed. I’ve been twice — once with the family and once with a friend — and thought the food was outstanding. Despite my attempts to encourage the more adventurous items on the kids’ menu, my 6-year-old went for the flatbread pizza, but she declared it the best restaurant pizza she’s ever had. Phew! Guess she does have a discerning palate, after all.

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