It seems like such a wonderful concept when you encounter it for the first time as a parent. You go to a restaurant as a family, are seated and given menus, and the waitress cheerfully turns to your children and exclaims, “And these are for you!” Their own special menus — kids’ menus! Sometimes these are little laminated things, peewee facsimiles of what Mom and Dad are holding. Sometimes these are placemats that not only tell you what foods are available but also contain mazes and word-search puzzles.
No matter what, the menu offers chicken fingers with French fries. And typically, as you go down the list, macaroni and cheese, a hot dog, a hamburger, grilled cheese and some kind of pizza.
Early in my tenure as a parent, I thought children’s menus were the greatest thing, a quantum leap forward in the human condition. We didn’t have them when I was a child, at least not at restaurants where adults would be happy to dine. (There were always “family” restaurants in the Friendly’s-HoJo’s idiom that offered junior sundaes and burgers.) I was thrilled that someone had come up with this innovation, that civilization had advanced to the point where children at good restaurants were now immediately placated with children’s food, so we adults could plunge worry-free into our adult business of drinking alcohol and eating things with tentacles.
For restaurateurs there are advantages, too. Marc Murphy, the chef and an owner of Landmarc in TriBeCa (and its new sister operation in the Time Warner Center), says doing a children’s menu has helped the bottom line at his bistro, which is known for its neighborhood clientele and value-priced wines.
“It totally drives that early seating for us,” he said. “The kids eat what they eat, and with our wine program, the parents can have fun.” Landmarc serves up the requisite greatest hits — the fingers, the burger, the grilled cheese — and throws in some curveballs, like “green eggs and ham,” flavored and colored with pesto sauce.
As for me, my outlook on children’s menus started to change at some point — probably around the 102nd or 103rd time my children ordered chicken fingers with French fries. Even if the chicken fingers were good ones, made from real breast meat rather than pulverized and remolded chik-a-bits, I was disturbed by their ubiquity and their hold on my kids, who are 11 and 8 years old.
I noticed that accommodationist chefs were making chicken fingers available in Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, where chicken fingers aren’t even culinarily justifiable. I perceived that my children’s chicken-finger meals outside the home were informing their eating habits inside the home, where they were getting more finicky. I heard from other parents that they were experiencing the same thing.
In short, I came to the realization that America is in the grips of a nefarious chicken-finger pandemic, in which a blandly tasty foodstuff has somehow become the de facto official nibble of our young.
For all the fretfulness I’m obligated to express over the health implications of this pandemic — chicken fingers are often fried, and are often accompanied by fries — I’m much more rankled by its palate-deadening potential. Far from being an advance, I’ve concluded, the standard children’s menu is regressive, encouraging children (and their misguided parents) to believe that there is a rigidly delineated “kids’ cuisine” that exists entirely apart from grown-up cuisine.
I grew up eating what my parents ate, at home and at restaurants. Sometimes, the experience could be revelatory, as when I tried fish chowder for the first time on a trip to Boston, or when my mother attempted Julia Child’s Soupe au Pistou.
Other times, dinner was merely dinner, not transcendent but comfortingly routine. And then there were those bummer meals that I just didn’t care for, like stuffed cabbage, but that I endured because my parents offered no other choice. It was all experiential grist for the mill, and it made me — like millions of other Americans of my generation who were raised the same way — a fairly adventurous eater with a built-in sense of dietary balance.
It pains me that many children now grow up eating little besides golden-brown logs of kid food, especially in a time when the quality, variety and availability of good ingredients is better than ever.
We accept that it’s bad not to read to young children lest it affect their “wiring,” and that it’s bad to let them slack off on exercise lest their muscles not develop, but we’re kind of lazy on the palate front. And really, discovering new foods and flavors is one of the most delightful experiences that childhood can offer. Personally, I far preferred it to reading and exercising.
There’s no single seismic jolt that created the adult-child food divide, but we can’t underestimate the influence of the McDonald’s Corporation’s introductions, in 1979 and 1983, respectively, of the Happy Meal and Chicken McNuggets. The instant popularity of these products signaled that there was a ton of money to be made in marketing foods explicitly to kids (even at fast-food restaurants, where kids were already psyched to be).
Since then, the food industry has developed a whole new segment predicated on what the nutritionist Marion Nestle, in her book “What to Eat,” calls the “ ‘kids are only supposed to eat kids’ food’ strategy.”
Ms. Nestle notes that ConAgra manufactures a product line called Kid Cuisine: prepackaged meals in compartmented, TV-dinner-style trays. If you visit the company’s Web site, you’ll find that all 14 Kid Cuisine meals are beige-yellow-ocher in color — a grim hallmark of the genre — and 5 of them are built around an entree in the breaded-chicken-nubbin family.
Realistically, there’s nothing to be gained by pining for that halcyon world where kids weren’t constantly being hustled; the genie is out of the bottle. But if we’re stuck with the children’s menu, there’s no reason it can’t be improved upon and made less of a sop to cosseted little fried-food addicts. And it’s encouraging that some important players in the hospitality industry, like the Walt Disney Company and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, are taking action on this front.
Both companies were motivated primarily by the new national concern over poor nutrition and childhood obesity, but each has produced a response that also addresses the dead-palate issue. Effective last fall, Disney stopped serving French fries automatically with kids’ entrees at its theme parks, “providing equal choice of fries, baby carrots, or grapes, not really pushing one or the other,” said Mary Niven, the vice president of food and beverage operations at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
Ms. Niven is leading her company’s “Well-Balanced Foods Initiative,” which also entails experimenting with new meals outside of the chicken-finger paradigm, such as arroz con pollo, the traditional Latin American dish of chicken and rice, and a baked chicken leg in an Asian-style citrus marinade, served with rice noodles.
Likewise, Ritz-Carlton launched a “Healthy Kids” program for children four years ago. The program not only de-emphasizes fried foods but also gives its chefs a freer hand to create their own kids’ menus. Vivian Deuschl, the vice president for public relations at Ritz-Carlton, who oversees the program, said it was set up in response to changing customer tastes.
A 20-year veteran of the company, Ms. Deuschl said that kids’ menus “started out on a limited basis in the ’80s and picked up in the ’90s as our demographics started to shift, especially at our resorts. We were getting more families, usually ones where both parents worked, so they didn’t want to leave their kids behind on vacation.”
At first, these guests were only too happy to indulge their children with a nonstop fingers-and-fries diet while on vacation. But in the last few years, Ms. Deuschl said: “We sensed a lot of tension. Parents were ordering things off the adult menu for their kids: crab cakes, pastas, stir-fries of vegetables.”
Perhaps no chef has taken the mission more to heart than Tony Miller of Latitude 41, the restaurant of the Renaissance Columbus in Ohio. (Renaissance, like Ritz-Carlton, falls under the Marriott International corporate umbrella.) “We do not have a chicken finger in this restaurant,” Mr. Miller said. The father of a 4-year-old girl, he constructed his “Fun Menu” to appeal to children without pandering to them.
“It features zero fried foods on it,” he said. “We do grilled organic chicken teriyaki, a seared fillet of whatever fish is in season, and a four-once fillet of natural beef with smashed potatoes. I have not received a single negative reaction from adults or kids. Not one. The kids say ‘Man, that’s the best steak I’ve ever eaten!’ ”
Mr. Miller is also shrewd in recognizing that parents are after not dumbed-down or deflavorized food for their kids, but rather smaller portions and prices. At the rates he’s charging — from $5 for the teriyaki to $8 for the small fillet, including beverage — he’s in the ballpark with lots of diners and chain places.
Marc Murphy, the Landmarc chef, said that it’s simply a matter of “not making a big deal of out of it” when it comes to your kids’ food preferences.
His own 3-year-old daughter usually skips the children’s menu at his restaurant, he said, and “eats the linguine alla vongole, with baby clams, when we run it on Fridays.” But it’s harder as your children get older and more exposed to the wider world; that’s when the pandemic claims them. In my family, it’s been a matter of getting back to that simple idea — the kids eat what the parents eat — and cutting off those little fingers.