The Political Palate – Part II – Kid’s Menus

I never gave kid’s menus much thought.  That is until my son turned five or six years old and wanted his own meal.  Before that I either carried his food with me or just asked for an extra plate and shared my food.  Then he went and chose to have an opinion on what he wanted to eat and at times I would give in and order his fancy.  But that didn’t work for long and thus started the challenge of finding decent options in a sea of fried, high fat, rubbish options that are pretty much the same in all restaurants.  If you’ve ventured into a kid’s menu you know what I’m talking about.  The way in which every restaurant tries to spin some imaginative way of presenting chicken fingers, hamburger, hot dog, mac & cheese, mozzarella sticks, pasta w/ butter, and so on.  All of them of course are served with what else but fries and a choice of soda or juice.  If you ask for milk, it is not included in the kid’s meal price and you will be charged extra.  God forbid you ask to substitute the fries for a veggie!  After all we wouldn’t want to encourage even an ounce of healthy in there now would we?
In concept I think kid’s menus are a wonderful idea – smaller portions for a lower price to reduce waste of food and money (refer back to the section on portion size in part I).  Unfortunately we have taken this idea and turned it into an excuse to feed our children unhealthy, unbalanced meals.  I don’t know about you all but I certainly did not grow up eating this stuff as a child.  Now granted, I grew up on mainly Indian food, but my mother didn’t cook “kid friendly” Indian food for us.   I don’t remember my friends eating such garbage at their homes either.  So why did our generation and those that came after us start to feed our children in this way?  I can almost understand the restaurant offerings being looked at as once in a while “treats”, but why have we started to cook separate meals at home and cater to our children’s whims?  I suppose it all began with the generation that decided that children are the center of the family instead of a part of the family.  Guilt from having both parents working perhaps?  I’m not really sure.
I used to have a neighbor with three children – one child only ate pizza, one ate only macaroni & cheese, and the other ate only Tyson chicken nuggets.  And so each night she would make these separate, so called, meals for each child and then a dinner for her and her husband.  Stuff like this really gets to me.  I say let the brats starve for a few days and they’ll eat whatever you put in front of them.   But you know what this is NOT the children’s fault; it is the fault of the parent who indulges in this nonsense.  It’s the same parent who wants to know if a restaurant is “child friendly” so he/she can allow his/her precious ones to run around all over the place and make a complete mess.  What the heck happened to manners folks??  I, for one, steer clear of these “child friendly” places and raise my son to be “adult friendly”.  Just as I did not believe in child proofing my house but house proofed my child.  These are all part of one and the same problem.  We are letting our children run our lives in every way, shape and form.  We don’t discipline them, don’t give them boundaries or responsibilities, and tell them that they are winners even when they suck!  How about telling them they suck (gently of course) and helping them improve?  How in the world will they grow up to face reality otherwise?
But back to the topic at hand………
There is hope out there.  I have noticed a change in the kid’s menus at restaurants in the past several years and those of us that want better options or have children who are used to better food, have choices today.  Most small, non-chain restaurants will provide options such as grilled chicken or fish with vegetables and rice.  And those that don’t are immediately taken off my list to revisit.  Legal Sea Food always offers a kid size portion of their fish of the day which is served with rice, corn & grapes, and they are happy to substitute broccoli for the corn for my son if requested.   As for the more upscale restaurants, I have had mixed experiences.  The two most memorable were at the Blue Water Grill in NYC and Emeril’s at Universal Orlando.
About three years ago, I promised my son a dinner at a good seafood restaurant in Manhattan.  He loves going to NYC and loves seafood equally.  We spent the day walking around all over the city, met some friends for drinks and then made our way to the Blue Water Grill at Union Square.  I had been there several times before and I like to sit outside on their small terrace and had requested a table there.  When we perused through our menus, my son immediately remarked that there was no fish on the kid’s menu.  Not even fish & chips which he loves.  I couldn’t believe it!  The menu was full of the usual garbage food options.  I told him we could share a plate of fish from the regular menu, but at the age of seven he was already claiming his independence and wanted his own plate of food.  He also wanted to make a statement – gee I wonder where he gets that from.  So, he proceeded to flag the waiter down and demanded to know why there was no fish on the kid’s menu.  “Aren’t you known for your seafood?” he asked.  When the waiter replied “yes”, he followed up with a “then it doesn’t make any sense,  you should let the chef know that some kids actually like to eat fish at a seafood restaurant”.  The waiter apologized, wrote down my son’s reluctant order of pasta with butter & cheese (we add broccoli to it), and went inside.  About 3 minutes later he returned with the chef who wanted to speak to my son.  The happy ending to the story was that he got a smaller portion of salmon with green beans and rice cooked just for him.  He was also told that when he returned, he should just request the chef to make him whatever fish he wanted in a smaller size.  Kudos to the Blue Water Grill for their response to my seven year old’s complaint but really I would be happier if they actually added the option to their menu.  I have not been back so perhaps they have.  I do not know.
I had been to Emeril’s before, the one in Vegas and also the one at Universal Orlando.  Each time had been a wonderful experience with various individuals as company.  So when we were at Universal Orlando two years ago and waiting for the Blue Man Group show to begin, we decided to try and get into Emeril’s for dinner.  I knew that if nothing else we might be able to sit at the bar by the kitchen since we had not made reservations.  Sure enough, that is exactly where we sat and my son was in heaven at the thought of watching the chefs at work.  He immediately made friends with the two sous chefs that were stationed behind the counter and chatted them up.  When the menus were handed to us (kid’s menu for my son), he did a double take and wore a big smile on his face.  Every item on the menu was a smaller portion of real food including a petit filet which is what he ordered with a side of Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.  He can never pass on a filet if it’s on the menu.  They brought us special appetizers and a complimentary dessert for the little guy just for his personality.  Everyone was terrific and we had a very memorable experience.  It was the perfect precursor to a fantastic show by the Blue Man Group.  If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit to Emeril’s.  The Cajun red fish is out of this world!
Around the time my son was born, someone gave me a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Table.   I’m a huge fan of his and was thrilled to have the book.  I was reading the introduction one day and what he had written in one of the margins truly inspired me in the way I chose to approach food with my son.  He wrote “I’m often invited to dinner at the homes of people who have children, and my hosts will say, ‘well, the kids are going to eat first.’  I’m served a roast of veal with artichokes, and the kids have pizza or a hot dog.  That’s absolutely wrong.  You cannot condition a child around four dishes – pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken, hamburgers – for twelve to fourteen years and then, at age fourteen, say, ‘Oh! Now the whole thing changes.  Now you’ve got to sit at the table and eat our food.’  They don’t like it.  Of course they don’t like it!”  He goes on to say that when his daughters were babies, he & his wife would puree whatever food was for dinner and serve that to them to condition their palates.  And that’s exactly what I did for my son and it really did work.  There are still things he doesn’t like, but for the most part he’ll eat anything and try everything once.  It really was as simple as that.  Oh and the words “don’t like” were banned from our dinner table.  They can’t learn to express them if they never hear them!!
Luckily my son no longer orders off kids menus since he is able to handle a regular sized meal.  This makes life so much simpler.  Sometimes we go back to our old ways and order an appetizer, a salad and an entrée and share them all but I’m really glad to have the days of bad food choices behind us.

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