Monday, August 19, 2013

Kids' menu in America

A couple of months ago, during our most recent trip to visit our families back in Europe, we all sat at a table on a terrace overlooking a beautiful garden. It was one of the very few days in Belgium (on average, there are a dozen of those) when Belgian residents see the sun, and their brain tells them that living in Brussels is not bad after all, and there is no reason to bitch about the weather. This self-delusional aspect of the human brain will never cease to amaze me...But I am going off-track.

We are sitting on this terrace, and our 2yo toddler, Mr. P., is acting his usual self, i.e. he is being as charming as a gastric lavage. This is partly due to the food he has in front of him: a nice (probably sous vide cooked) sliced chicken breast, with some sort of alcoholic jus on top, and apple sauce on the side. His food is very good, frankly, even if it lacks salt: but he won't eat it, although he was presented as a "kid option".

And our mind goes back to the US kids' menu. If you have aver eaten with a kid in any American restaurant, you will have been handed a "kids' menu". The selection of food offered is very limited, and it is always the same, irrespective of the place you are visiting: chicken nuggets, sometimes fishsticks, apple sauce, mac and cheese, cheese sandwich. Perhaps  "pizzadilla" (a quesadilla with tomato sauce) if you go to a Mexican restaurant.

Googling around, I discovered that the origin of the kids' menu's tradition in the US started with the prohibitionist era. As they were losing customers, who didn't go to dine out because they couldn't drink any longer while eating their meal, restaurants thought that they could lure a different type of clientele into their establishments, one that had not been dining out until then: families with kids. To do that, they started offering menus specifically tailored to children.

We are in 1920, and the health nazis of that period firmly believed that kids should not eat fruit and vegetables (they could cause diarrhea), desserts of any type, bacon, tomato soups, lemonades. These beliefs were firmly established in the children parenting bible of the time, The care and feeding of children, by one Emmett Holt (you can read the whole book here, if you want). No chicken nuggets were available at the time, replaced - according to this Slate's article which tells the history of children's menu - by the ubiquitous lamb chop. (Picture a 21th century kid eating a lamb chop, please).

Even when the ban on alcohol was lifted, the kids' menu tradition remained, and it evolved over time, until it stabilized with the current choice of yellow food (notice, 90% of the food on the kids menu is yellow...) in the '70s.

As a father of a very picky eater, kids menus are both a blessing and a curse: a blessing, because in 99% of cases, the menus are printed on coloring papers, which will keep your toddler entertained for at least five minutes (they normally give you crayons too). A curse, because even if you think - like I do - that a lot of what the health-nazis want you to believe about food is not true, you don't need to be a food scientist to realize that all this fried food and all this cheese is not particularly good for your kid.

In the meantime, all I can do is try to continue to educate Mr. P. about eating whatever we eat. Long gone are the days where I would spend time preparing special dishes for him: if he wants to eat, he'll eat what we are having. If not, he'll eat some some other day.


Trobairitz said...

Glad to have you back and blogging.

The kids menu in the USA should probably have a hazmat warning since it has so many calories, processed food and salt.

I don't have kids but still see the articles on kids menus and how bad they are.

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi Trobairitz, thank you! Yes, you are right. A lot of calories, but especially a lack of variety. The solution though is very simple: have them eat what we eat.

recapitulation said...

A friend jokingly told me the only veggies he eats are the ones listed as sides on a diner menu. I think it's about equivalent to your yellows: mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, corn, fries, etc. Goodluck refining's Mr. P's palate one meal at a time. I recall outcome of the homemade vs. organic baby food!

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi Recapitulation, I think you are friend is onto something though. Isn't this the country where pizza was categorized as vegetable because of the high content of tomato in the sauce?


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