Essay: Ordering Up a Better Kids' Menu

May 22, 2014

Essayist Lane Pierce would like to see better options than this on kids' menus.
Credit theimpulsivebuy photo, via Flickr

It was a Wednesday afternoon when my phone beeped with a text from my husband that read, “Wanna go out to eat tonight?”

Is the Pope Catholic? A few times a month we decide at the last minute that I don’t want to cook, or he doesn’t want to do the dishes, or we don’t want to eat one of the meals that is in regular rotation at our house. So we go out. It’s a treat – for us, and for our two-year-old son. We have our favorite haunts, some better than others, and on this particular night we found ourselves at a neighborhood bar and grille that is “kid-friendly,” meaning they have a kid’s menu.

As we settled into our booth stocked with crayons and coloring pages, swirly straws and sippy cups, I reviewed the menu designed for little ones. Our options were (all with fries and a drink): Grilled Cheese, Chicken Tenders, Cheeseburger, Penne with Butter or Marinara, or Fried Cheese Curds. That’s right, cheese curds as an entrée. Maybe if you ordered the burger you’d be lucky enough to get a bite or two of something green.

Aside from the noodles - which he could eat army surplus style - my son doesn’t really dig those “kid-friendly” options. And I’m not paying $6 for a meal comprised of noodles and fries. So, we ordered two adult entrees for all three of us to share and asked for a side of their vegetables.

“Oh, we’re out of vegetables tonight,” the waitress informed us, saying she just sold the last one.

“Wha…Umm…So…Your restaurant is literally out of vegetables?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

I nodded, stupefied, as I pictured her reaching into a dusty barrel, pulling out the last raw turnip and putting it on a plate for the family next to us.

By no means am I a food purist. At best, our family could be described as “Nutritionally Confused.” We eat our whole grain flaxseed waffles covered in syrup that’s not really syrup but high fructose corn syrup with caramel color. We make hot chocolate with organic milk. And, we eat chicken sausage that doesn’t really say there aren’t nitrates.

But cheese curds as a meal? A restaurant that runs out of vegetables? Even the Nutritionally Confused know there is something wrong with that. Why is it that professionals in the food industry expect so little out of their smallest patrons (and said patrons’ parents)? Parents are given the choice of processed starch on the kid’s menu for $6, or a full $18 entrée that is delicious, nutritious and eight times the amount of food a small person wants to eat. I want to order my son one fish taco with a small side of Asian slaw. My kiddo would Or, one slider with a side of veggies and a handful of fries. Down the hatch. The message children get from the kid’s menu is, “Enjoy your food. Our expectations for you are low.”

Let me, though, share a sign of hope. Some restaurants have woken up to the fact that kids will eat more than buttered noodles (although that will always be an option on The Kid’s Menu, of course). Later that month we decided to navigate the rough restaurant terrain again.

When ordering the kid’s mac ‘n cheese we were asked by the server, “Would you like whole wheat noodles?”

“Why, yes, we would!” we replied enthusiastically.

“Topped with edamame?” she continued.

“Stop it!” we shouted, flushed with excitement. 

One small step for dinner. One giant leap for children-kind.

Lake Effect essayist Lane Pierce is a Listen To Your Mother essayist and 2014 Milwaukee cast member. She writes, wrangles and raises a spirited toddler with her husband in Whitefish Bay.