Kids menus. I can't say I'm enthused when I read the selection of flavourless mac and cheese, plain pizza discs, and dry, white-meat chicken fingers, but I've accepted the options as part of the family dining experience - kids need to eat, and parents want to sit at a restaurant every once in a while and zone out to the sound of adult chatter and Daniel Tiger playing on the iPad that they slipped into their bag "just in case." But maybe it's time we fight the status quo.
In a tirade titled, "Why ordering from the kids menu is harmful to children," A.V. Club's Jeffrey M. Barker argues that lacklustre "kid food" isn't just bad for kids' health in the short term, it's also bad for business and food culture in the long term, creating a generation averse to spices, herbs and anything with flavour.
... imagine if the kids menu standards applied to adult diners. Imagine being seated at your regular neighbourhood 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.
Restaurants are slowly starting to get it, and some now serve kids many of the same foods they serve adults - handmade noodles or grass-fed beef hot dogs - just in smaller portions and translated for more hesitant diners. Joe Sparatta, chef of Southbound in Richmond, Virginia, told Bon Appétit, "We don't want kids to eat the way we do late at night when we're tired as shit."
Most places, though, are still calling it in when it comes to kids fare. Ninety-seven per cent of kids meals in America's top chain restaurants flunk nutrition standards set by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (The report lists Applebee's grilled cheese with fries and chocolate milk option as one of the worst — that meal has 1,210 calories and 2,340 milligrams of sodium.)
Here's what you can do to avoid the kids menu trap:
Share What You're Eating With Your Kid
A no-brainer. It's cheaper, too. I usually like to order spicy dishes, but when I'm sharing with the kid, I'll ask for the spicy sauce or peppers on the side. At Asian restaurants, there are usually no kids menus, so we have to share. We love going to pho restaurants. There, I'll order the biggest bowl possible, ask for a smaller bowl, give my four-year-old daughter some noodles, soup and meatballs, and leave all the other stuff - rare steak, tripe, tendon, sprouts, jalapeños and gobs of Sriracha - for myself.
If you add appetizers and sides, and portion it all out, that's a pretty substantial meal for everyone.
Ask for a Half-size Entree
For pastas and other dishes that can be easily split (read: not a king salmon), some restaurants will allow you order half portions by request.
Ask for a Side of Veggies to Be Brought Out First
Instead of watching your hungry kids munch on bread rolls for the first twenty minutes of the meal, order a side of veggies — roasted asparagus, sauteed green beans, steamed broccoli — and ask your server to bring it out as the appetizer. After they fill their stomachs with green stuff, you'll feel better about whatever they eat next.
As Barker suggests, it's up to parents to lead the revolution against the travesty that is the kids menu. ("If we stop ordering the chicken fingers, they will stop offering the chicken fingers," he writes.)
But please, please don't get rid of the crayons.