Children’s Menu Hell


At New York’s Union Square Cafe, where they have no kids’ menu. Thank god.

A couple of weeks ago, my 7 and 8 year olds were getting out of school at noon on an “early release day.” I typically pick them up on those days and take them to lunch at a place of their choosing. They have a few favorites, but for some reason, my son wanted to go to South, the newest of the Urban Food Group’s four restaurants. He had been to Vivace and Porter’s and loved those, and he wanted to try something new. Yes, my 8 year old son wanted to explore! My daughter, the 7 year old, was resisting a bit. “What will they have?” she asked. “Do they have a kids’ menu?”

Ugh. Kids’ menus. I’ve always despised the notion of these monstrosities, but I was pretty sure that South did not have a mac n’ cheese and chicken finger offering for the “wee ones.” I did, however, send an email to Scott Luetgenau, the Director of Operations of Urban Food Group, just to see. He was apologetic, saying “We do not offer a kid’s menu but I will make sure to have one in place by next Friday.” I told him, PLEASE do not create one.

So the three of us went to South, before they had added a children’s menu, and we had a great time. My daughter just ordered green beans and fries. My son was a bit more adventurous when he got a Kentucky Hot Brown, an open faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a rich, sharp cheesy sauce. He loved it (although he only ate half of it). My daughter thought the green beans were fantastic, particularly with the bacon (but she could have done without the onions.

Needless to say, this reminded me of a piece I wrote several years ago at eGullet, and I wanted to revive it. Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts of children’s menus.

YOU’RE IN the middle of a six-hour drive to your mountain vacation cabin and get caught in a construction-induced traffic jam, when you hear the third most hated phrase in the world emanating from the booster seat in the rear of your minivan: “Daddy, I’m starving. Isn’t it time to eat yet?” (By the way, the second and first most despised phrases are, “Ihafftagotodabaffroom” and “I think I’m going to throw up.”) You immediately declare to your children that we will not be eating any fast food, also requiring each of them to demonstrate his or her understanding and affirmation.

You find an exit that appears to have a fair amount of commercial activity, avoid knocking over too many construction barrels, and advise the kids that the nasty mega-chains, such as Shoney’s or Cracker Barrel, are included into the “fast food” category. You spot a sign for a restaurant that you’ve never heard of, a place that has plenty of cars in the lot. You cut off an El Camino and a Toyota Highlander to get into the parking lot. As you shove the piles of books and toys out of the way to let the young ‘uns out of the Odyssey, you’re hoping that this will be the place where they have their first memorable food experience. It might be country style steak, some local mountain trout, or some top notch fried chicken. It could be a nice vegetable-laden pasta or some slow-cooked, Lexington-style barbecue. You take your seat after fighting with another parent for the last remaining high chair, since your youngest is only 2 and hers must be at least 3 or 4 — get the kid a booster, for heaven’s sake. The waitress then walks up to you with . . . crayons and 4 children’s menus. The kids are happy; you’re depressed again.

I’ve reached the conclusion that there’s a children’s menu clearinghouse out there where every restaurant goes to obtain not only its particular menu but also all the food listed on it. If there’s not a central warehouse for this stuff, there must be some federal statute, overriding any state or local statutes, mandating that every children’s menu contain at least the following items: chicken fingers (also can be called nuggets or strips), hot dog, hamburger/cheeseburger, and grilled cheese. French fries or potato chips are required accompaniments. The restaurant may add one or two additional items (usually one of which is a pasta dish: macaroni and cheese or something with marinara). Depending on how much of a loss the restaurant is willing to take on its children’s fare, dessert (usually ice cream) and drinks may or may not be included with the meal. Don’t believe me? Check out the kids’ menus at these national chains: TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s, Shoney’s. Heck, even an alleged seafood chain like Red Lobster generally follows these rules. [Update: OK, Red Lobster’s kids’ menu is much, much better. See, someone has listened over the past 4 years!]

The advantages of these menus are obvious: give a child something that is very familiar and at a low cost. Don’t challenge the child, keep it cheap, and the parents will be happier (and perhaps order more expensive stuff for themselves, aka the profit centers). Keeping the cost low is important, as it makes family dining more affordable. Parents don’t really want Junior to order a $7 burger when they know he’ll only eat a quarter of it. My seven-year-old daughter ordered a $14 chicken pasta dish the other day, which she loved. She ate a third of it.

The restaurant industry has recognized the importance of offering a kids’ menu for quite some time. A 1999 article from the National Restaurant Association indicated that when families with young children choose to go out to eat, the children usually select the restaurant. Of course they’re going to pick the place with the “kid friendly” food and the best activities to occupy their time. You didn’t expect them to choose the new Vietnamese place down the street, did you?

The industry also recognizes that the children’s menu is a marketing tool rather than a profit engine. Profits come from the parents and building customer loyalty. When children are choosing the restaurant, those that cater (pander?) to children will be on the top of the list.

The downside of this phenomenon? I’m not sure where to begin. First, children have no opportunity to explore new foods. Given an option, a child will usually be extremely happy to choose something very familiar. They’re not forced into an adventure (although, for most Americans, we probably fall into that some trap with the adult fare as well). As a child who rarely saw a children’s menu, I loved to read the adult menus to find something a little bit different. Sure, I’d still get a burger with fries, but sometimes I’d get some clam chowder or barbecued chicken or — egad! — a salad.

The children’s offerings today also appear to be the unhealthiest options imaginable. French fries are guaranteed to be on the menu. Most selections are deep fat fried or otherwise loaded with fat. Fresh veggies and fruits are rarely offered (although a recent trend is to include sugar-laden applesauce). These are the things that kids want and these are the things that kids get, or is it the other way around? I certainly make no claims that the children’s selections are less healthy than much of what’s on the regular menus, but at least the adults have a choice of something that could pass as being nutritious or low fat. More importantly, if it’s going to be unhealthy, the kids should at least have the option of having the food served with bacon.

I suggest that restaurants do the following: rather than just offering the standard 4 to 6 selections to children, offer smaller portions of what’s on the regular menu, and cut the price proportionately. I find it hard to believe that TGI Friday’s can’t offer a small rib platter to its younger customers. Or a small chicken Caesar salad. Or even some of that Jack Daniel’s shrimp (although offering kids dishes with liquor-based sauces may not be a shrewd marketing move, which is probably why I’m a lawyer not a fast-food marketing consultant). Give the kids an opportunity to peruse the menu a bit, thinking about all their options. Yeah, I know that it’s hard to get them to choose from the five options they already have, but can’t the parents help a bit?

Now, who took my chicken fingers?


7 Responses to Children’s Menu Hell

  1. Malawry says:

    With a 2-year-old who has a tiny appetite, I like the savings of a kids menu, but I agree the options usually suck. No matter what we get for Colin, my biggest rules are that there be some form of protein and either a fruit or a vegetable in front of him. (He loves all carbs and there is always bread, rice or something else somewhere on the table we can give him.) I have found that even when stuck dining in the chains, if you ask for a fruit or vegetable instead of fries, they’ll usually oblige at no extra cost. In ethnic restaurants, we often order an appetizer for Colin and then feed him stuff off our plates (perhaps chicken satay at a Thai place, with some noodles and stir-fried veg off of my dinner).

    I do think things have improved. We were at Disney last summer and all their kids meals come with two sides, including options like carrot sticks or grapes. Actually we ate at Bistro de Paris in Epcot and the kids menu there was short but fantastic, with some real French food on it–plus a couple sleeper hits like “boeuf hache en brioche” for those insisting on a burger. (Colin actually napped through that entire dinner, so I don’t think we ordered him anything.)

    The upshot of being on the rural edge of suburbia and not dining out too often is that we don’t have to game kids menus terribly often, except when we’re traveling. I am already sick of chicken fingers. When I worked at the sorority, I told one of the girls that I never ate them as a child (the McNugget wasn’t introduced until I was around 10 after all) and she was amazed.

  2. Susan says:

    Great site, which I just discovered via the Independent.

    I agree with most of your rant, but was about to chime in about the value of a good kids’ menu, when I got to your last paragraph, which sums up my point of view.

    It’s insulting – and is a missed opportunity – when a restaurant offers the same ol’ thing on the kids’ menus. What I look for is smaller portions at a lower price – but of dishes already on the menu – or at least in keeping with the spirit and style of the place. To use your daughter’s pasta dish as an example, wouldn’t it have been better to order a smaller portion for 1/3-1/2 the price?

    My 8-year-old’s favorite kids’ menu is over there at North Hills – at Firebird. Where else can you get a steak cooked medium-rare for $8 — with your choice of two sides (including – among other things – a side salad, mac-n-cheese, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, carrot chips-n-ranch, cooked apples – oh yeah, and fries).

    And you must also know that the Q-Shack has ribs on their kids’ menu!

  3. Varmint says:

    There’s no doubt that kids’ menus have improved a lot in the 3 years since I wrote the above piece. You can get healthful sides, and you’ll see more places offering a steak or ribs or fish and chips, but you’ll still almost always find the usual suspects. Granted, most of America (parents and children) want those items, so I should probably be complaining about the dumbing down of the American palate, but that’s another comment for another day.

    And thanks for finding the site and adding to it, Susan. You’re always welcome here!

  4. Tyler says:

    Dean, thanks for reviving this discussion about Kid’s Menus. Since I am in the parenting game now, I often experienence “chicken finger hell” aw well. While we try and stay away from national chains while dining out, I did discover that Ted’s Montana Grill has great Kid’s Menu. It is probalby one of the better ones that I have seen. They were pretty liberal with substitutions – broccoli for green beans, mashed potatoes for fries, etc. Do they have chicken fingers? Of course they do, put they have several other selections. I have provided a link to their kid’s menu, for those that are interested to check out –

    I think it would be great if we could have folks email in and share other places that really good selections for the wee ones.

  5. Kelly says:

    When we take out the nieces, we usually put food from our orders onto smaller plates for them. It works out fairly well since they cannot read the kid’s menus yet so they don’t know that they are missing out on deep fried whatever w/ applesauce on the side.

  6. whizkidforte says:

    Oh, and we can learn a whole lot from the French when it comes to kids’ foods – they cook a large variety of foods, with no triteness in each day! Here’s the link to the NPR article and the radio clip:

    Hope you listen and read this – it’s so helpful!

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