We all know that ‘kids menus’ in restaurants are appalling. Laura asks: Why are they on offer instead of smaller portions of the real food, and why do we continue to buy them?
by Laura Jean King on February 6, 2012
Ah, the kid’s menu: a beacon of ease in the sea of convoluted options littering the “adult” pages of the menu; a tempting escape for any parent face-to-face with an ill-tempered adolescent. Consisting mainly of a bland pasta entrée, some sort of boring breaded chicken and French fries for days, the kid’s menu delivers children a fatty, salty and carbohydrate-rich meal usually void of any sophisticated taste or complexity.
As a food-conscientious parent, you inevitably ask yourself, “Why don’t restaurants just offer kid’s sized portions of regular meals instead of kid’s meals?” and “Is this menu helpful or detrimental to my youngster’s developing palate?” Well, why ever could that be and is it?
and the answer is…
The sad and simple answer is that any restaurant is foremost a business and they are catering to the customer. This is twofold in the instance of a child patron: the first customer is the paying parent, but the second customer is the eating child. From the vantage point of a child, a child doesn’t tend to eat something unfamiliar or spicy. When encouraged or pushed to eat something unfamiliar or spicy, a child often throws a tantrum. Restaurants are well aware of this, so they reserve a special menu filled with familiar and bland fare for the parent to easily navigate and the child to quickly select from.
Ultimately, the restaurant has a bottom line, they want everyone to be satisfied and to come back again. When parents go out for dinner with the kids, they are most likely relieved when the children enjoy the food and they can all have a stress free meal with the kids actually eating theirs. Besides the fact that the parents appreciate some peace, the other patrons in the restaurant do as well. Unfortunately, it’s just easier for parents to let the kids eat bad food off of the kids menu than arguing with them in a public place about eating a new food or finishing their vegetables. They probably figure they can argue with them any old day at home, but on a night out it’s not worth the fight.
Another point to consider from the restaurant’s perspective is if the kid doesn’t like the meal and complains, it may deter the parents from returning. Even if kids don’t outwardly complain about a restaurant but simply don’t ask to come back, it may make the parents not venture over there again. Kids control more of the decision-making than adults think in this instance, and restaurants know it. Would McDonald’s be so crowded if the kid’s didn’t want to be there? That is, at the very least, one good reason why the kid’s menu exists in restaurants.
However, the parents themselves give restaurants another motive, besides a quiet life, to offer a starchy, inexpensive kid’s menu. The kid’s menu is, of course, inherently cheaper than the adult’s menu, not only because of the smaller portions, but also because it offers cheaper types of food. If a small lobster were on the kid’s menu with a petite side of exotic mushrooms, this would inevitably cost loads more than pasta with butter sauce or a small burger and French fries. It is almost comical, but if the kid’s menu looked like this, most parents likely wouldn’t want to deal with the added cost and kids wouldn’t want to deal with the unfamiliar food. Nobody would want to come back.
To further illustrate my point, if they had Coq au Vin for the same price as the chicken fingers, the parents would likely demand the child eat the Coq au Vin sensing a deal. If the Coq au Vin was 7 dollars more and the kid wanted it, then there is discord again. Essentially, to enable kids and parents to eat off of the same menu, restaurants would either need to either dumb down the entire adult menu to create fast food-like options and pricing or have the menu be much smaller portions of the adult fare and hence a lesser price, either option would alienate the kids and parents and likely wouldn’t generate enough to support a working restaurant.
Maybe if the restaurants knew it’s patrons were very interested in more mature food choice for kids and assured them they were completely willing to foot the extra cost, restaurants would adjust their kid’s menus. At this time, however, it is completely understandable why restaurants choose to offer such cheap, flavorless fare to children. Some parents don’t mind their children eating off of the kid’s menu and actively prefer it for reasons previously discussed, i.e. it’s easier and cheaper. For those parents who want something better for their child’s stomach and palate and don’t mind the extra cost, they can easily order their child a meal from the adult’s menu and take the leftovers home.
Kid’s menus exist because many kids tend to prefer blander, more basic meals and flavors. Restaurants and parents have to contend with the fact that the younger a person is, the sharper their taste buds and other senses are. What tastes perfect to us adults may taste overly salty or too strong to them. Parents and restaurants could try to meet kids in the middle taking a portion of the food they’re making and season it a bit less or omit any overtly spicy flavor like hot peppers and such. This way, the kids are still eating the same meal and getting a taste of the flavors, just at a level they can handle.
but is it right?
While it is understandable why restaurants (and homes too) are cooking in this “kid’s menu” way for children, is it okay? Will their taste buds ever be able to develop well and mature without profound flavors and varying textures to bite into while out to eat at a restaurant?
Sadly, there is no conclusive answer. Some people who grow up eating few vegetables go on to be connoisseurs of broccoli and vice versa. Maybe an adult’s food choices don’t have as much to do with their upbringing as we all tend to think. What is clear, though, is that these starchy, fatty foods are not good for a child’s overall health and a lack of exposure to beneficial foods is at the very least not going to send them in the right direction.
It may not have been conclusively stated by a Harvard study that yes, in fact, the kid’s menu is utter crap and you should run from it as fast as your stroller can go, but as intelligent adults we know right from wrong. Anything that is parts of a chicken processed and breaded into the shape of a dinosaur is probably not doing anything beneficial for little Johnny or Joanie save injecting some calories into their stomachs and quieting a couple of whiny voices for the duration of a chew. While I mean no offense to those parents who think their child would not tolerate anything other than low-grade chicken chunks, I believe feeding those to your child borders on criminal neglect. Getting back to the point, though, kid’s menus are up to no good whether they exist in the home or at a restaurant.
Enforcing the rule that your child will just have to eat what you’re eating (albeit a smaller portion size) will reward you and your child three ways: to start, your child will develop a better palate from which he or she will enjoy food for the rest of his or her life. Secondly, their lives may be much longer because their diets will be healthier and more nutritious. Lastly, sharing the same meal at the same time at the dinner table can help unify a family in a way that no other moment of the day does. It’s a time when everyone gathers to essentially break bread from the same loaf and enjoy being a family.
Now before you write me and Martha Stewart off for having unattainable ideals, I want you to know that I do realize for some families this may be easier said than done for multiple reasons. For many families, I’m sure, the problem is that the children just won’t comply with the agenda. For other families, parents don’t comply with the agenda. As unsavory as it is to think about, many parents make justifications at the drop of a hat and don’t mind having their kids eat whatever they want off of the kid’s menu. It turns out, though, this is understandable because the parent’s diet seems to be quite similar to the kid’s menu already. These kids’s don’t have much hope, I believe, to grow out of this imposed food rut. People draw their line in the sand at an early age and seem to stick to it.
At the end of the day, it really isn’t about what the restaurants are offering to a child on the kid’s menu, it’s what the parents are offering and exposing to their child every day at home that has the greatest likelihood of shaping their palates and, ultimately, their lifestyle.