Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kid's Menus: Good idea?

This morning a press release from Marriott caught my attention, Kids Eat Free - Three Meals a Day - At Marriott Hotels, as it reminded me that the topic of the "kid's menu" is one I've kept putting off writing about since there are so many other things to write about that always seem more pressing.

Since my son was born, my husband and I have almost always taken him out to eat with us. It's very rare he doesn't accompany us.

I can still recall one of our first dinners out when he was finally predictably and regularly eating solid food, he was 10 or 11-months old - we ate at Lebanese Taverna in Arlington, VA.

Seated at the next table was another couple with their little girl, who was probably 2, and a delight - well behaved, laughing happily as her parents engaged her and enjoyed their dinner. What struck me as somehow sad was her meal - deep-fried, breaded chicken fingers with french fries.

Here her parents had an incredible opportunity to provide a wonderful and delicious new taste experience for her, and they instead chose to order the same-old, same-old, available on every kid's menu in America - chicken nuggets and french fries.

That night, my son dined on tastes of everything we were eating - Hummus bel Shawarma, Mixed Shawarma and Sharhat Ghanam. Portion sizes being what they are these days, it was more than enough for the three of us, with leftovers taken home in a doggie-bag!

In almost every restaurant we're eaten in, it's the same story - the kid's menu is often a repeat from the last restaurant - chicken nuggets, noodles with butter (and sometimes even cheese), pizza or bugers (with and without cheese) - with a side of french fries or other potato concoction (think tater tots), a beverage and often a dessert too; all for a rock-bottom price that's hard to pass up!

Is it any wonder our children's most often eaten foods are fries, pizza, burgers, pasta and chicken nuggets? It's all we offer them each and every time we order off the kid's menu!

On our recent vacation in Colorado, we had lunch at Alpenglow Stube (young children are discouraged from the dinner hour). This gave us an opportunity to bring him up to the summit on a gondola, and as luck would have it, a snow cat ride down the mountain after lunch since the winds picked up and the gondola was closed due to high winds.

Lunch is a pre-fixe menu that included a starter buffet wtih a sampling of cheese, crackers, breads and spreads from around the world, followed by a choice of homemade soup, then a second buffet of salads, fruits, and other selections before the entree was finally served. On the day we were there our soup selections were either coconut-chicken-curry or wild boar sausage in a tomato and vegetable base; our entree selections were rack of lamb or a surf-and-turf combo of grilled venison and shrimp.

Some pretty daring stuff to consider for a toddler!

As we read the menu and options, we were told our son might prefer noodles with butter, an item not listed on the menu; then it was added, we could also choose off the menu if we preferred, assured that portion sizes were small anyway.

Decisions, decisions...

No decision really - our son hasn't had a meal off a kid's menu in a restaurant - so it was the wild boar soup for him and me (coconut-chicken-curry for my husband) and grilled venison and shrimp for him; rack of lamb for both my husband and me.

A quick trip to the cheese buffet started our delicious lunch with feta, goat, blue, cheddar and brie, a small assortment of crackers and some unidentified (but interesting looking) spreads. The only cheese not eaten by my son - the blue, which was quite tangy, with quite a "bite" to it; understandable that a two-year-old might not find it palatable!

Our soup, a small and reasonable portion, followed. It too was delicious, only the broth a touch too spicy for our son - so he picked out the vegetables and sausage to eat, leaving the broth behind. This was followed by another quick trip up to graze the salads - some tomatoes-basil-mozzerella, olives, sliced melons, grapes, strawberries and pineapple proved to be winners.

The entrees followed, beautifully presented, equally delicious - and as stated, portions served as portions should be - just enough to enjoy without the need for a wheelbarrow to carry out the leftovers! Dessert, nah! - we were quite content after this feast, nibbling on the last bits of fruit and cheese, and passed on the delicious sounding desserts offered; awaiting our small doggie-bag (a leak-proof box actually) to arrive with our bill.

My reason for these details?

No other child in the restaurant that afternoon was eating anything other than the bowl of noodles and cheese, a bowl that contained no less than six cups of pasta, I'm telling you, it was HUGE, glimmering with butter and parmesan cheese. Every child under five, it seemed, was left to mull over this super-size bowl of noodles while their parents enjoyed the incredible meal.

Surely with the cheeses, fruits, salads, speads and entrees (that included a wonderful assortment of baby vegetables as the side) these kids would find something they liked and would eat, no? In this restaurant, it wasn't a matter of enticing rock-bottom price - whether we chose the noodles or the complete menu, the price was the same. So, why would anyone not choose the full-menu and encourage their children to at least try this wide assortment of well-prepared, fresh, delicious food?

Somehow I think we've come to believe our children will not eat such food; they're picky eaters and prefer the known over the unknown. In some ways this is true; moreso if you do not encourage a wide variety of flavors, tastes and textures early on. The "kid's menu", I believe, reinforces the notion that children will only eat a very limited selection of foods.

Can you imagine, that no matter where you go to eat out - italian, chinese, mexican, indian, american, steakhouse, seafood, thai, french, lebanese, middle eastern, or other yummy sounding restaurant - you're given just four choices, actually the same four choices, every time you eat out? Chicken nuggets, burgers, noodles, pizza - again and again, everywhere you go, every restaurant you're taken to eat.

Is it any wonder our children's most often eaten foods are fries, pizza, burgers, pasta and chicken nuggets?

We're teaching them that's what you eat, what they're to eat, every time we eat out and once again order something for them from the "kid's menu."

Personally, I don't see us ever ordering off the kid's menu - thus far, this decision has served us well; our son enjoys eating out, is continuously trying new foods, and we've yet to not find something on the menu we're going to order that isn't something he'll eat too. Over the holidays, we dined at a local steakhouse with visiting family - an extra side of aspargus (cooked tender) was added to our order simply because it's one of our son's favorites and didn't come with any of the entrees. His plate was filled with a selection of our meal, along with his asparagus and some of our vegetables.

The kid's menu at that restaurant? Burgers, chicken nuggets or pizza. No bowl of noodles, but I bet if we'd asked, they would have made them!

Childhood obesity is on the rise and I have to wonder if, with all the meals eaten away from home these days, if part of the problem isn't so much the eating out part, but the never-changing, always the same meals - the same junk food everywhere and anywhere you eat out - encouraged by almost every restaurant in America, found again and again the kid's menu?

While these items may appeal to the budget, what are they really teaching our children about eating?


  1. Coincidentally, my husband and I were talking about this very topic last night at dinner. (Disclaimer: we have no kids yet, so we understand that all our plans and theories may be completely devastated on arrival of our own little ones.) We were eating for the first time at a local Mexican place with a very large and varied dinner menu. Their kids menu had the exact same choices you mentioned, along with grilled cheese and french fries. There was not one offering on there that was even remotely close to mexican food.

    I understand the motivation for the restaurant to do this - it's what the majority of their customers want. The parents want to be able to go out and eat whatever they like, while being able to take the kid with them. As my husband pointed out, even an overpriced grilled cheese and fries meal at a restaurant is cheaper than hiring a sitter for the evening. And it's more trouble as a parent to convince a picky eater to try something unfamiliar than it is to shove a plate of fries or buttered noodles in front of him and ignore him while you eat your own meal.

    Still, it seems to me there is so much potential for good in the idea of a kids menu. I'm sure there are many customers who would appreciate being able to pay a lower rate for a smaller portion which is more reasonable for a child's appetite. And children do have less developed palates, so choices with less complicated flavors might appeal more to them, without needing to resort to the absolute blandness of chicken nuggets and fries.

    I would order my child a cheese quesadilla off the kids menu at a mexican restaurant if it were available, even though it's not all that different from a grilled cheese sandwich. But I don't think too many kids would refuse to eat taquitos or tacos or tostadas or nachos, although some of them might balk at the veggies (but who really thinks it's better to not offer it to them in the first place?) And yes, they'll probably make quite a mess eating it. But that's part of the Mexican cuisine experience, and will probably contribute to them liking the food and growing to appreciate different flavors and tastes and cultural practices.

  2. I would order my child a cheese quesadilla off the kids menu at a mexican restaurant if it were available, even though it's not all that different from a grilled cheese sandwich. But I don't think too many kids would refuse to eat taquitos or tacos or tostadas or nachos, although some of them might balk at the veggies (but who really thinks it's better to not offer it to them in the first place?)

    Our son has always had vegetables as part of every meal, since he started eating solid foods, so I think that definitely has refined his tastes for vegetables and he eats them all, from asparagus (as I said one of his favorites) to green beans to even spinach and cauliflower or broccoli. Eating vegetables is just part of life.

    So far as ordering something specific for him, we've found in almost every restaurant so far, the portions we get are so huge, we just share with him our meals, sometimes will add an additional side if we think it's something he'll especially like, and just ask for a plate for him rather than order an entree specifically for this point his appetite isn't big enough, even sharing amongst the three of us, we still leave with a doggie-bag 95% of the time.

    Oh, and yeah, you'll be amazed at what you compromise on from those ideals y'all talk about now!

  3. Hunter is getting so big, Regina! It's hard to believe he's grown so much in the year since I met you and your family last January.

    I'm so glad he has a mommy and daddy who care about what he eats...for the sake of his long and healthy future.

    God bless you for loving him enough to give him the very best! :)

  4. I also brought my two out to eat with me almost every time I went out to eat. They're 22 & 24 now. While i must admit I frequently let them eat off the kids menu (I wish I knew then what I know now), but I encouraged them to eat new things, and they often would order "unusual" things. We got a lot of weird looks from the wait staff! My daughter loved (loves) shrimp and scallops...and my son, since he went to a lobster bake at age 2 loves lobster.

    I frequent a Pakistani restaraunt close to work. Some of the food they have is amazing, but time after time I see the young ones sitting with a plate of plain white rice, while mom and/or dad enjoy some of the better choices.

    My daughter, 24, works at a steak house. She says that kids rarely eat more than a few fries, but mom and dad still insist they get desert!! She says she wants to tell the parents that they shouldn't get desert if they didn't eat their meal! She also has told me that she's heard kids ask their parents for a taste of what they're eating....and the parents refusing, telling the kids "you won't like it"!!!! She doesn't have any children of her own yet, but she's learing about nutrition and proper eating from me as I learn. She's determined to feed her children better than she sees kids eat. Oh! At a past job at one of the fast food places she says parents often order just fries for their kids....especially when they come thru the drive thru!!

    BTW, as long as we're on the subject....have you seen the ads for Gerber Graduates? And the MacDonald's ad with the kid getting dressed up, then going with mom to McD's for a "healthy" meal of chicken nuggets, apple dippers and 1% milk??? Comments?

  5. "Our son has always had vegetables as part of every meal, since he started eating solid foods, so I think that definitely has refined his tastes for vegetables and he eats them all, from asparagus (as I said one of his favorites) to green beans to even spinach and cauliflower or broccoli. Eating vegetables is just part of life."

    My kids ate their veggies too - until they got to be school age. Then this little thing called peer pressure starts, because no one in the class likes broccoli(or brussels sprouts or asparagus, or whatever). Thinking there must be somethig wrong with eating such things, the child who has eaten it all their life will suddenly refuse to eat it at all.

    Instead, they start requesting the chicken nuggets, fries, grilled cheese, etc that everyone else likes - the very junk that's served in the school cafeteria, and on every restaurant's kid's menu.

    The real kicker was when my first-born reached 6th or 7th grade. The science teacher informed the kids that if they ate off the salad bar in the cafeteria, they were eating hundreds of aphids, because the lettuce was supposedly covered with the little critters. That child wouldn't touch salad or any kind of lettuce for the rest of her school years. In fact, she's still leery of it, at age 24.

  6. The problem starts at home. Most kids are not given food to eat as we were 40 years ago & that was it, no now silly mum thinks they have to be asked what they would like to eat & you guessed it what do most pick? I want noodles I want chicken nuggets I want, hot dogs & chips I want icecream what else would a kid want given a choice - party food thats what. I am yet to hear one child of my sister's or friends say mummy I'll have a bit of fish & some brocolli for dinner. No wonder that is all they will eat out because it is the only food they know. Parents teach kids early on in life that they will cave in pretty rapidly if I throw a temper tantrum & if that's all I'll eat then 9 times out of 10 that's what I'll get -just so mum can say to friends & family - oh junor eats everything we do!! yeah right yet to see that. Regina I would suggest you are bringing up your child the way we were brought up try everything & eat what is dished up at home because that's all you will get. Food was never an issue at home for us as kids & my whole family will try something new at least once before saying no thanks. The kids however have been asked since they were old enough to answer what do you want for dinner dear? & you guessed it noodles was the answer followed by mum saying wouldn't you rather have some nice lamb & salad? No No noodles was the yelled reply & you can guess what they got!!!

  7. Anonymous12:59 PM

    Feeding kids crap is due to laziness and ignorance on parents' parts.

    My son was never told what to eat but I always prepared foods from scratch at home. His breakfasts always consisted of bacon/ham and eggs, 3 egg omelettes or homemade bacon, cheese and egg on toasted rye bread. School lunches were always packed and made by me and of course supper, once again, was made at home.

    So it was no surprise that when we went to a restaurant when travelling and he could order anything from the menu, it was always 3 egg omelettes or curried chicken, for example. The waitress would always bring the plate to me thinking I had ordered it, when in fact it was him.

    My son loved all sorts of foods, curries, chinese, vietnamese, you name it he tried it and in most cases loved it.

    Maybe it was because I treated food matter-of-factly that it never became an issue. My son was not an easy child to raise so don't think it was because he was a passive personality. It was just that I did not buy anything that I thought was unhealthy and did not feed him anything that I thought was unhealthy. For example, there were no soft drinks in the house until his teens and most kids preferred to come to our house as opposed to him going to theirs, so exposure to bad stuff was at a minimum.

    Perhaps I was lucky, but perhaps I controlled the situation from the beginning without letting it get out of hand. It took a lot of work and time, but then I think my child was worth it. It gave him a solid nutritional foundation.

  8. Anonymous2:38 PM

    It's similar with the kid's menues in Germany. You always have 'Wiener Schnitzel', Spaghetti Bolognese and French Fries on it. There was a very long time where only chinese restaurants offers all there dishs as a childrens dish (half of an adult dish). But now a lot of restaurant owners are realising that they have to offer something special. Nowadays many restaurants are offering 'normal sized' dishes and 'half sized' dishes preferable for elderly and kids.
    My 5 year old ate everything til nursery school. Then he became a picky eater and we had a lot of struggle about eating. Now he eats at the nursery school (not the best choice of food and quality) but he eats there and he stopped being a picky eater. So I have to balance out at home what he misses at the nursery school like vegetables.

  9. Anonymous8:45 PM

    Earlier this week Oprah had as guests on her program the Sears family of pediatricians--father and 2 sons, and the mother-wife who is a nurse (jointly the authors of about 50 books on child-rearing). The doctors were advising mothers to breast feed as long as possible and not to give solid food to infants before six months at least. But the solid foods to give should NOT be the usually recommended "easy to digest cereals like processed rice" which is pure, simple, processed carbohydrate (like sugar: nothing complex about the molecules). The youngest Dr. Sears pointed out that kids might well be getting their carb addictions right from the beginning in the poor selections parents feed their infants, such as processed grains as their first so-called "solid" food. The Dr. suggested mashed avocado or mashed banana as good vitamin-rich foods for an infant's first foods.

    Grandmother in New Jersey