For restaurant-goers who have not had the displeasure of ordering on behalf of someone not yet old enough to read, here’s the sad reality of kids menu offerings: mac and cheese, chicken fingers, grilled cheese, plain hamburgers. Almost always those things, no matter the quality of food or cuisine. Mexican restaurants will offer a quesadilla—which is, let’s be honest, just a south-of-the-border grilled cheese. Italian places cheerily say they can make “plain noodles with butter and cheese.” My wife and I—as parents of a 4-year-old—have been to restaurants where the mac and cheese was clearly out of a box, but the place still had the audacity to charge us $8 bucks.
When the server comes over to the table to ask, “Do you have any questions about the menu?” Here’s what I want to say: “Yeah. Why doesn’t your chef give a shit?” I’ve been taking my daughter out to eat two or three times a week her whole life, and that’s the only conclusion I can arrive at: When it comes to kid diners, chefs are phoning it in. They’re not interested in expanding kids’ palates. They’re appealing to the lowest common denominator.
The ubiquitous high-sodium, low-flavor offerings we’ve come to accept as “kids food” are bad for kids’ health in the short term, but aren’t they also bad for business in the long term? Aren’t restaurants grooming another generation of picky eaters who will turn out folks unwilling to eat sushi or shakshuka? (A thirtysomething friend proudly professes never to eat anything that is the color green.) Or like my retirement-age in-law who still gravitates to the most familiar menu item, not even confident enough to ask the server to identify an unknown ingredient? (It turns out he went several years not knowing what “EVOO” was and shunning any option that included it.)
What bothers me more is that going out to eat is supposed to be fun. It should be a treat, an adventure. And we’re robbing kids of that, too. If a meal at a restaurant is boring, bland, familiar food, what message does that send to our little ones?
Look, I give my kid mac and cheese at home, though I try to mix in some peas or broccoli. Also, I’m no poster child for healthy living: More than once (in the past month) I’ve been the guy waiting at the Taco Bell entrance for an employee to unlock their doors at 9:30 a.m. I know feeding kids is a challenge, and yet, I’ve raised a kid who, so far, snacks on Castelvetrano olives and chomps raw kale leaves the way other kids (and her dad) mow down potato chips.
But imagine if the kids menu standards applied to adult diners. Imagine being seated at your regular neighborhood joint and given, instead of the full menu, a smaller menu titled “for troglodytes with unrefined palates.” And all it’s got on it is a burger or cheese pizza. Maybe splurge for a nicer restaurant and they slather a fancy aioli on their burger and call the cheese pizza “flatbread.” Another night you feel like Asian food, so the chicken nuggets at the place you go to are “sweet and sour” and the burger has teriyaki sauce on it. If that was the case, you’d be insulted. So, why is that insult acceptable when directed at our kids?
I asked a few cooks at restaurants I frequent in Seattle, and I heard, predictably, that chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches are what parents want—it’s what they’d ask for if even there was no kids menu from which to order. Bull. Essentially, that argument is: a) We don’t care about what kids eat, because b) parents don’t care what their kids eat. I don’t believe either is true. Parents want their kids to eat well, and chefs would love it if kids ate the food they create.
And is it really a defensible position that a restaurant ought to offer only what people would order if given no options? If adults visited a restaurant and shied away from foreign ingredients such as cardoons or Grana Padano, would that restaurant take those items off the menu as well?
Here’s what we do for our daughter: We piece together a meal from side dishes. We scour the descriptions of entrées and ask for just the portions she’ll eat (“Oh, they have cilantro rice with the lamb dish—let’s order a side of that with steamed carrots.”) and hope that the kitchen is amenable and the waitstaff won’t charge us too much.
I want other parents to join me in refusing to order off the “unrefined palates” menu. If we stop ordering the chicken fingers, they’ll stop offering the chicken fingers. Parents ought to examine restaurant menus for the most exciting starters, sides, and ingredients and create their own meals for their kids. If it’s listed on the menu somewhere, that means they have it in the kitchen and can plate it separately.
Better (and cheaper) yet, just ask for an extra plate and share what you’re eating with your kid. It sends a powerful signal to kids that the whole family eats the same thing and there is not some separate, lesser-than sub-category of food for them.
And chefs: How about putting a little thought into kids’ palates and offering a couple of items you’re proud to serve? Groom your future customers by exposing them to spices and herbs and pickled things. And if customers request chicken fingers or hot dogs, be bold enough to say, “We don’t serve that here.” At a minimum, chefs should offer smaller portions of the entrées on the regular menu. Give us the $7 version of the $20 entrée—a smaller amount of protein and maybe the sauce on the side.
Otherwise, my daughter is probably right. I asked her this past Sunday during brunch if she liked to eat at restaurants, and she told me, “I could just eat what we have at home.”