August 9, 2013

A Rant on Restaurant Kids' Menus

We recently got back from a family vacation, meaning that we ate out a lot in restaurants. I frequently feel a bit dismayed about restaurants' approaches to feeding children, but being on an trip and eating meal after meal at restaurants compounded my frustration with the offerings and apparent philosophy of feeding kids that a lot of places employ. It seems that every single kids' menu offers: grilled cheese and fries, hot dog and fries, hamburger and fries, and pasta with butter or marinara sauce. Occasionally there would be something else but pretty much that is the kids' menu, from Maine to New Brunswick. 

I realize that my son (not to mention any of us) is probably not going to eat as healthfully when we're out as we try to maintain as a routine at home, but seriously-- ever heard of fruit? vegetables? And perhaps the occasional child might be interested in eating something besides these typical kiddie entrees? It seems that the message from restaurants to parents is, don't you worry, we've got this covered, we've got a few reliable options sure to make your kid stuffed and happy so you can order a glass of wine and some actual (at least closer to) real food for yourselves. 

I'm fine with including the grilled-cheese-burger-hot-dog-plain-pasta routine on menus-- sometimes we all just want a hot dog. And I get the desire to play it safe with feeding kids when out in public. But maybe you could offer a few other slightly more interesting options as well as these. And must everything come with french fries? (They aren't even tasty french fries!) 

It's not just the ubiquity of these bland fries I quibble with, but the huge pile of them with enough calories to fill him up for a couple of days I'm sure. The huge portions of everything they served him astounded me. I've come to accept that adult portions, at least in non-high-end restaurants, are generally ridiculously huge, but seeing the size of a kids' meal just hit the point home. Could restaurants be more reasonable and serve a small burger, or half a burger? How about half a grilled-cheese sandwich? Or a half cup of pasta rather than two cups. I admit my son is only three, but he's a pretty solid eater and he barely made a dent sometimes. When we're traveling, we can't take the leftovers with us, even if we wanted to, so all this means is either an incredibly stuffed child if he doesn't know when to stop with greasy goodies or a lot of wasted food in our wake. I know this is getting a little extreme, but wouldn't it be neat if there were the options of both a smaller and larger kids' meal? There's a sizable difference between what a three- and an eleven-year-old can put away. 

And, oh my goodness, this one was new to me and rather knocked my socks off: pretty please, do not serve candy for dinner. Okay? Seem reasonable? At least bring it afterward, perhaps call it dessert? And let us decide whether we want to order it? Please don't place a package of Oreo cookies on top of my three-year-old's mountain of fish and chips. Please don't throw a lollipop atop his pile of grilled cheese and fries. These two things literally happened on our vacation. I realize some people might give their three-year-old lollipops, but we don't. But anyway, could you just let us know this little surprise is included? It causes me to wonder if anyone running these places actually has kids. What a rookie move. It seems pretty obvious that given this presentation, he's going to dive for the package of FOUR Oreo cookies before anything else, not to mention get some pretty weird messages about what "dinner" means. 

I tried to just relax about the constant indulgences, telling myself that my son is on vacation, too, and vacation is supposed to be indulgent, right? So he pretty much rotated through that standard handful of offerings at the various restaurants we went to, losing some enthusiasm for fries and hot dogs along the way, I think not just in my imagination. 

While I'm ranting, two last things that irk me beyond the actual food for kids at restaurants. You don't need to serve his milk in a plastic cup with a straw and a lid that we can take home. I don't need another plastic cup and I really hate the idea of restaurants disposing of these things left and right. Just a regular old cup would do just fine (the fanciness factor of the places we were dining at meant plastic cups for everyone anyway most of the time), maybe give kids a smaller cup, or maybe just fill it half full if it's a big one. The only time our son drinks with a straw is when we go out. I can accept that drinking through a straw is a motor skill everyone should master, and he sure got a lot of practice at it last week, but it's as if restaurants think this is the only way people under twelve consume their beverages. 

Lastly, sigh, I'm sorry, waiters, if it seems that I start to bite your head off when you suggest this, as I know you are trying to help, but please don't reassure me that you'll bring my child's food out "right away" or with the adults' appetizers. What does this accomplish? If he acts like a heathen while we're all waiting for our food, at least one of us can take him outside. If he is horrible once he's satiated and is now bored while we are trying to eat, that timing is much less convenient. We understand that eating at a restaurant means some waiting time as part of the deal. As parents, it's our job to figure out how to deal with that. Patience seems like a pretty valuable social skill to develop. And I'm all for a cup of crayons and some paper during the wait. But I'd much prefer that we wait together, then eat together.      

Felt good to get all that off my chest. So, as I was having pretty much this same rant during a Willem nap on our trip home, I got a fabulous idea of what restaurants should do (other than use reusable cups for kids, too) that we hadn't seen anywhere: restaurants should write one menu, period. A variety of whatever sorts of foods the restaurant serves (you know, like they already do). And then they should state on the menu the option to order any dish on the menu in a child's size. I felt like I had come up with something brilliant. There's more variety that way, and the more adventurous child has more options. There's also sure to be many dishes that way that don't come with french fries. A lot less wasted food. It also would mean that dishes are written onto the menu because, theoretically, they are good and people will like them, not simply because they are simple and greasy and sure to keep a kid quiet. Anyway, I thought this was only a pipe dream. But I thought, it can't hurt to ask for smaller servings of regular menu items in the future. Then just last night we dined out at a unique little favorite local restaurant called Ariana's, just up the road in Orford, New Hampshire. We hadn't been there in quite a while and I had forgotten this about the place:
These two lines were the entirety of the children's menu. The same nice food for everyone, and so flexible and inviting! 

I liked Ariana's already for their good food, and the fact that their restaurant is in an old farmhouse with turkeys wandering around outside and corn fields swaying in the breeze by the parking lot, but I have a whole new appreciation for it now...I made sure to let the chef know how happy all three of us were when he came to check how the meal was.

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