October 1, 2012

Cleansing of the American Palate

by

 Eating in Italy

In spite of my frugality, I like to eat out. Over the years I’ve figured out how to make it work for me and my family – both with cost and food choices. I’m not big on national chain restaurants, but sometimes they’re just a safe choice. I’m more of an “eat local” kind of girl. That has to do with my grandparents. Even though we didn’t eat out often, other than the few big buffets the restaurants of my youth (and likely yours) were local places owned by families whose kids went to my school or to the synagogue or had accounts at the bank where my grandma worked or went in to the post office and knew my grandpa.

The food was the pre-cursor to the modern farm-to-table trend. It was organic before there was such a thing. And there was just one menu, the one where parents would order food and the kids would eat what the parents put on the separate plate set before you when you sat down. Maybe it’s because I’m nearing my “mid-40s” and my memory is fading, but I don’t recall being able to order from a “Kid’s Menu”. I ate what was served, just like at home.

There was no “Do you want nuggets or mac & cheese?” conversation. There was no concern that I would starve to death because I wouldn’t eat whatever Asian concoction was brought to the table this time by Mr. Pon, who knew my grandparents well and never gave us a menu when we went to the restaurant. I ate tempura shrimp and who knows what all else at Tachibana’s, the local Japanese restaurant.

It’s not that kids didn’t go to these restaurants. In the 70s and early 80s, dining out almost nightly wasn’t the norm. That  is a more mid-to-late 80s phenomenon that hasn’t slowed. As a kid, going out to eat meant it was a special occasion. And, of course, that meant kids were on their best behavior.

Fast forward to my becoming a mom and dining out takes on a whole new experience. Times certainly changed from my childhood years. Before kids, I witnessed many exchanges between exasperated parents and their children over what the kids were going to eat. Parents wanted the kids to eat something “healthy” or “nutritious” and the kid wanted a burger or nuggets with fries. The bargaining over vegetables was almost always lost by the parents.

My first “fancy” restaurant was when I was about 8 or so and we were served sorbet between courses “to cleanse the palate”. Teeny tiny little spoons of dessert! I was so excited! It was a transformative experience and I knew that I wanted to be a grown up and have these kinds of fancy meals. Yet, here I was, a new mom, finally paying close attention to what kids are supposed to eat at restaurants and realizing that some people feed their pets better than what mainstream restaurants are offering to children.

To be fair, there are restaurants that do offer non-fried foods and vegetables that are, in  fact, real and not just classified as one by the government. Options, that’s all I want! Real food where my choices aren’t between fried, fried, fried and not fried but totally carb-load-a-palooza.

I’m fortunate BabyGirl is a very adventurous eater. She’s not eating “extreme” foods, but she is more apt to choose something that looks like what we eat at home. Her peers tell her she has the best lunches. She takes leftovers. Servers are surprised when she shares what we eat. Some may think it’s my being cheap. But, in reality, it’s because I never thought it was acceptable for me to eat a delicious meal while my child was left to eat food even the government doesn’t think is suitable for kids to eat at lunch.

Do I think chicken nuggets, burgers or mac & cheese are the devil? Of course not. But how else am I going to help BabyGirl push the envelope on food choices and keep chefs on their toes if I don’t demand better food for her when we go out? When we were in Italy, there was no kids menu. Many of the kids in our group would eat before we were taken to our local restaurant because their parents weren’t willing to deal with the drama of the child (in most cases we’re taking tweens/teens) turning up their nose at the local fare.

Today, when we talk about cleansing the palate I think about an entire generation raised on crappy kids meals who must wait until they’re 10 or 11 or 12 before they’re able to transition to the full menu. One restaurant we go to, a local place with a farm-to-table bent, has a “kids eat free” policy. They could easily push basic processed food to keep the costs down. But, instead, they make smaller versions of what is on the full menu. For FREE! Kids get choices like pot roast with veggies, a mini version of the artisan pizza their parent’s may order, a grass-fed burger with gruyer cheese on a made-in-house whole grain bun. Why is this so hard for other places?

Don’t restaurants see that by serving our kids bland, basic, pedestrian food they can buy at any fast food place or warm up in a microwave as a snack they’re shooting themselves in the foot? That they’re making it harder for parents to get their kids to make good food choices. That kids deserve to have quality food that isn’t a fat, carb, and filler-fest?

I know I can’t be the only one wishing restaurants would take an active role in helping parents teach kids about eating well. I’m also not ignorant to the fact that it’s partly a cost choice on both the part of the restaurant and the patrons – parents, in general, don’t want to pay “full price” for a meal their kid won’t eat. But there has to be some happy meeting place. The argument that “kids won’t eat that” is lost on me because kids will eat all kinds of things. Look around the world, heck, look around our extremely diverse country, or even the cities we live in. There is nothing in our DNA that makes “average American children” need nuggets, burgers and mac & cheese when they go out to eat.

I think we, as parents, deserve better from restaurants. I think our kids deserve better choice so they’re not stuck choosing from a menu that really isn’t acceptable to us but when placed before our kids ties our hands. “Cleansing the palate” no longer means giving us the opportunity to fully appreciate the tastes and textures of the food we eat. Instead, it’s starting to mean wiping out any chance for our kids to want anything more than a future of foods we’re not willing to eat ourselves.

What do you think about kid’s menus available at restaurants you frequent?

 

This is NOT a sponsored post nor does it contain affiliate links. This is just my opinion, it’s not a slam against any particular restaurant. I have no material connection with any dining establishment whether mentioned or not. Basically, I’m just ranting. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Sara

{ 7 comments }

Tracy October 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Great article Sara! My kids generally don’t eat what is on the kids menu at places. They like real food, and yes sometimes “exotic” items such as sushi. My oldest really enjoys squid-ask him how to eat it sometime-and the others are just as adventurous!

Sara October 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Tracy, I think you’re proof that kids eating off the kid’s menu comes from the parents. It’s easy to slip into the “but it’s cheap/free” when it comes to eating out with the kids, but if they don’t have an option other than eating something new and different they won’t. Good for your oldest for eating squid and sharing his love for it with others.

ZoniDuck October 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm

From the time that BabyGirl first started eating solid food, I’ve been amazed at the kinds of things she likes. A wary, “I don’t know if you’ll like this…” was a sure fire way of getting her to demand a taste. As you know, there are many times I’ve had to protect my meal from being devoured after sharing a little bit with her.

And it’s not like she won’t eat mac & cheese or chicken nuggets like a champ, it’s just not her first choice if there’s something better on offer. It’s always fun to try someplace new with her and see what she likes. I think you two were right on the money with your rule about not letting anyone say ew or yuck about a food she was trying for the first time, giving her small portions of whatever you were having for dinner, and respecting her likes and dislikes after she had tried something. You’ve raised a child with solid opinions about food, and a true willingness to try just about anything once. She’s both an adventuress, and an excellent dining companion!

Sara October 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I thought it was funny that BabyGirl wanted your rogue tomato, even though it was tiny and just one. I actually think we’re all a bit more adventurous with her around.

Dimitri Raul October 2, 2012 at 6:46 am

About kid’s menus, your this excellent article has inspired me and I’ll try to do it.

Skirnir Hamilton October 2, 2012 at 6:54 am

My son used to alternate. He often preferred the icky kids meal choices, but I think it was more it wasn’t what he got at home, so liked it for a change. He still tends to order the larger burgers when he goes out now and at 15, he hasn’t been ordering kids meals in forever. No idea why he almost always orders a burger and fries, but he does. My hubby alternates. I tend not to order a burger and fries due to calories. But I try not to worry about what my son orders, as it is only once a week, so if he wants a high calorie, high fat meal, I let him.

Sara October 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Skirnir, thank you for sharing your personal experience. I think kid’s meals lead kids to believe these are the foods they’re supposed to eat. So while an occasional burger and fries isn’t all that bad, it seems so many young people think it’s normal and the foods mom/dad fix at home are weird. Sounds like your son might like the familiarity of having a burger when he eats out.

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