We eat out far too often for our own good; fortunately, however, we’re blessed with good restaurants that rely heavily on local, organic foods. We can find grass-finished beef and bison burgers, spicy vegetable curries, fresh sashimi, colorful soups and beautifully composed salads, but one thing remains the same: the kid’s menu. While my husband and I can choose to start our meal off with artisan cheeses or spiced olives before following up with a salad of gorgonzola cheese and pears over arugula and a nice juicy elk steak, our child invariably has three choices: buttered noodles, chicken fingers or a hamburger with fries. Nevermind if your child suffers from food allergies: you’ve no recourse at all. You know, kids have tastebuds too. If I can enjoy the rich depth of lamb carpaccio served with a bright pecorino and dotted with fresh mint, you bet my kid can enjoy it too. An offering of consistently dull foods doesn’t allow children to explore the variety of tastes, textures, scents and colors that our foods provide.
Eating is more than fueling our bodies with nutrients or garbage: it’s a sensory experience, or at least, it should be. There’s life beyond macaroni and cheese, french fries and peanut butter sandwiches. I hear a lot of complaints about picky kids: “That may be all fine and well for you, Jenny, but my kid would never eat sushi / fennel / kefir / what have you.” And while it’s inevitably true that some kids are just picky and that no one can appreciate every flavor (except maybe Andrew Zimmern), we learn to love the foods that we’re exposed to. If children are only ever offered chicken fingers and buttered noodles, they’ll only develop a taste for chicken fingers and buttered noodles. In our home, except for a few brief weeks in which I prepared my son’s first foods as mashes and spoon fed him, he has always eaten what we eat.
At nine months, he’d sit on my lap at the sushi bar and gobble up seared ahi sashimi and ikura – those beautiful little luminescent orange balls of fishy goodness. He’ll order his steak “bloody” and insists on eggs over easy and can appreciate the sweet complexity of a well-roasted head of garlic. And, get your phones ready to call child protective services, I even let my toddler try a sip or two of wine from time to time. I want him to grow to appreciate and value food, because it’s valuable and worth appreciating.
The other day we lunched at the Ginger Café which, blessedly, does offer a decent children’s menu of two items (ginger fried rice and peanut noodles) which are just miniature and less-spicy versions of Thai Fried Rice and Pad Thai. Instead, he powered through a bowl of flaming hot, sear your tongue off Tom Yum Goong. The soup is beautiful – a lemongrass and kaffir lime broth flavored with explosively fresh chilies. Mushrooms, tomatoes, prawns and cilantro flesh out the soup. And, hot as it was, he continued to eat it – coughing and sputtering at heat of the chilies. Why? Because it was a good, good soup and even children can appreciate a well-composed dish. So, when we head out to eat, It saddens me to see so few options for children. Why would I make my child suffer through a mealy, funky GMO-laced corndog when I know he can appreciat the butternut squash soup dotted with cranberries and pepitas? And, you know, I don’t think he’s alone.
If permitted to explore the flavors and artistry of real food, other children would appreciate it too. It’s time to redefine the kid’s menu. Give up the buttered noodles, the chicken fingers, the macaroni and cheese. Toss out the corn dogs, the hot dogs and the uninspired cheeseburgers. And, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will never deserve a place on a menu. In essence, if you wouldn’t serve it to paying adults, don’t serve it to kids! So I implore restaurant owners and chefs everywhere: Please, for the love of all that’s beautiful, rethink your kids menu. It’s simple: offer smaller plates of your popular dishes.
And, a note to you parents: Never ever tell your child, “Oh, you wouldn’t like that.” Let your son or daughter determine the flavors he or she loves. Remember, kids have tastebuds too and we all deserve good food.