Last week I took the boys out for a sushi dinner after their music lessons. As I watched Teddy devour a bowl of miso soup followed by a huge helping of different rolls including California, tuna, and salmon (the boys ate five rolls total, 40 pieces, between them – they are definitely not cheap dates) I thought about how most of the time when we go out to eat he makes choices from a menu that’s aimed just at him. In fact, had the sushi restaurant offered a children’s menu Teddy would have undoubtedly angled for a hamburger and fries, his foods of choice (and of course, in certain situations, mine as well). Instead he had a good helping of brain food and we also talked about how in Japan he might have sushi in his bento box at lunch.
Food is important in my family’s life. We all love to eat and especially enjoy going to restaurants, whether that be the best restaurant Roanoke has or a fast food joint, and it is such an integral part of our travel experience. I firmly believe that a great way to experience culture – be it regional U.S. culture, immigrant culture, or the culture of a new country we are visiting – is through food. When we’re on the road, I plan our meals carefully, reading reviews of restaurants and surveying menus online to make sure that our dining experiences are interesting, high quality ones. At home I make a wide variety of foods from around the world including stir fries and curries, most of which Teddy eats happily.
But what I’ve come to realize lately is how often Teddy orders off the children’s menu when we dine out. His brother, who had a huge appetite, is always interested in growing up as quickly as he can, and also is a more adventurous eater, will usually order from the regular menu. But hand Teddy a pack of crayons and a menu with a word search on it and he’ll go for that every time. I can’t count how many times he’s eaten either sliders or corn dogs over the past year.
I’m not being a purist here, nor am I insisting that restaurant food always be healthy. I have nothing against a good corn dog or sliders per se. But the problem is that children’s menus are great levelers. All too often, these specialized menus aren’t about food or the specific dining experience you are meant to have at a given restaurant but about convenience. The offerings on them are often uncreative, not nutritious, and, although cheap, not really a bargain because they aren’t of the same caliber as the rest of the food on the menu. But what to do? We’re not going to stop eating out, and as more and more restaurants have children’s menus it’s not realistic to think that we can only choose to eat in those that don’t offer them.
After pondering this for a few days, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that moderation is the key. I’m going to use our upcoming travel this spring and summer (some of which will be in Europe where we aren’t likely to find menus aimed at children anyway) to experiment with having Teddy order off the regular menu at least half the time. He’s old enough that we can be explicit about this with him, telling him that part of the fun of eating in new places is to try new foods. I expect to meet some resistance, but after all, isn’t it my job as a parent to meet that kind of resistance with gentle encouragement to do the thing I know is better for him in the long run?
I’ll also acknowledge that there will be times when dining out will just be about each of us getting to make an easy and comforting choice – and that this is OK too.
And finally, I’ll keep looking for restaurants and resorts that do kids’ menus right – offering engaging, delicious options that are actually a reflection of the rest of the food the kitchen serves. The list at the bottom of this post includes links to posts about restaurants that are my favorites for this reason.
Do your kids order off the children’s menus at restaurants? Do you have any particular favorites or strategies for getting them to branch out? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.