Bite-sized menus designed specifically for children under a certain age have become quite the norm at various restaurants and eating establishments. In fact, it’s likely that each and every individual reading this piece has ordered off of or dined from the kids’ menu at least once in their lifetime. And, whether you choose to opt for five-star or fast-casual, there’s likely always a menu designated solely for tiny mouths close by. Yet, even though a kids’ menu can be cost-effective and easy, have you ever wondered if ordering from it may be hindering little palettes from expansion and growth? Below, Addie Ladner, freelance writer and creator of Grace Gourmet, makes a personal argument for avoiding the kids menu when eating out as a family. -JKM
As far as my daughters know, kids’ menus don’t exist. We rarely ask for one. Come to think of it, I doubt many of the restaurants we frequent even offer them. There’s just the menu, which is the means of tastiness to table. High-quality, local restaurants are having a major moment right now, and I don’t want my kids missing out on any of it. I never set out to specifically avoid kids’ menus, either. When my oldest was about six months old, without much thought, I’d let her sample little bits of what I ordered. Now, at nearly three years old, she’s tried fares such as oysters, beef tartare, cod beignets, cold asparagus soup, salad nicoise, and of course, all the desserts and breads a toddler could want.
Once, while on vacation in Napa Valley, my husband and I hesitantly brought our kids with us to eat a four-course meal at the Culinary Institute of America’s Gatehouse Restaurant. It’s an intimate, sophisticated place, run solely by culinary students. Bringing kids there was a bit of a Hail Mary, but when in Rome, right? Thankfully, our family of four enjoyed a long, leisurely meal of dishes including house-cured salmon, potato crepe with fennel tarragon purée, squab breast, and caramelized endive tart. We had a stranger approach us and say that our kids had been so quiet. She also couldn’t believe how well they’d eaten. I laughed in relief, as I was sure she was coming to say something else.
Quite often though, I have received joking comments from people suggesting our kids need to be eating “traditional” kids’ foods instead, such as foods served at the famous fast-food chains, or food that comes from kids’ menus. It’s as if going to these places and eating from a kids’ menu is a rite of passage, and ours are missing out. I see it as the opposite. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One cannot think well, sleep well, love well, if one has not dined well.” I see bringing our children with us to eat, no matter how unique or nice the restaurant is, and feeding them straight from our plates or the main menu, as giving our children the gift of good taste. They’re exposed to worlds other than their own through food. They’ve excitedly experienced the likes of France, Laos, Lebanon, and Greece, all without leaving our home city of Raleigh, North Carolina. They are determined to learn the proper use of chopsticks, and I couldn’t be more proud, even if their efforts do result in a huge mess.
They’re learning to both appreciate and enjoy food of all kinds. I almost find it heartbreaking to think what they could be missing out on if we’d taken a different approach. I’ve read that American families eat out more than families in any other country. Yet, even with the globalized food scene here, the options for kids at restaurants are less than thrilling. We want our kids to be “good” eaters, but what I often notice on kids’ menus is that the food is far from good. We want them to learn how to properly use their utensils, learn manners, and respect others. Are restaurants not great opportunities for those lessons, especially if families are spending an increased amount of time eating out? Kids need to be included in what we eat and not bypassed. It can start with finding alternatives to kids’ menus and diversifying their palates.
It saves money and wastes less
How often do you order too much at restaurants and how often do your kids actually finish their meals? By nixing ordering from the kids menu and just giving your kids tastes of your food, plus an appetizer or a few side items, you’ll save money. This way, less food will end up in the trash, too. Think quality, not quantity.
It’s usually healthier
It always surprises me that most of the kids’ menus I’ve seen offer the same embarrassingly universal foods. Foods such as chicken nuggets, pizza, plain pasta, or grilled cheese are the norm (and yes, our kids have eaten these and loved them). However, these dishes are usually not only lacking in necessary nutrition for growing minds and bodies, but they’re lacking in color, in flavor, and in fun. No matter where you are, there are likely healthier and tastier options on the main menu than the kids’ one.
If kids get used to seeing and trying new foods on a regular basis (which applies at home also), then they’re more likely to develop into open-minded eaters in general. In return, food isn’t as likely to be an issue.
You can go out to eat anywhere
As I mentioned earlier, we don’t really give any thought regarding what the kids like when we go out to eat. We opt for a local place that’s going to serve delicious food. Our kids don’t know any different and will, for the most part, try anything. Where and what we eat isn’t an issue—at least not yet!
Go early and call ahead
Give the restaurant a heads up that you’re coming. Request high-chairs if you need it. If you have lots of grabby baby and toddler hands, go ahead and tell them you won’t need all the extra breakable cups, plates, and cutlery. Additionally, you’ll likely have a more patient server and better behaved kids if you go early before rush hour, and before the kids get overtired.
Take a note from the French and eat food in courses
Instead of putting everything on the kids’ plates for them to either devour in no time or turn their noses to, serve one thing at a time to keep everyone entertained and eating lightly throughout the meal.
We love finding small plate restaurants with kids, as typically the portions are just right and many are finger food options. We request one plate be brought out at a time, in the same vein as the previous tip. Tapas can also be exciting for young children, with the beautifully plated dishes just their size and the element of surprise. What will come out next?!
Order a la carte
Boiled eggs, avocado, grilled chicken, steamed seasonal veggies, rice, and more. Try ordering a few different side items or request an à la carte item from a main dish for the kids. It’s often just a few bucks extra as opposed to the full-priced kids’ menu, and some places might even throw it in on the house.
Always, with enthusiasm, offer some of what you’re eating to your little ones! If they aren’t interested, don’t make a fuss over it, but at least offer it up.
Put up the distractions
Eating out together as a family can be a lovely, engaging activity, not to mention fun. Request that the toys, all screens, and crayons be put away. Be present.
Get a hook-on high-chair
For food-loving families of young children who live in urban areas, these are great to bring along to places where high-chairs are limited or non-existent. It can make all the difference in everyone enjoying their meal. We have and love this one.
Relax and enjoy yourself
Kids learn from their parents. If they see you enjoying your meal and trying new foods, then over time they will do the same!
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