Is it just me, or are the so-called “kids’ menus” at most restaurants among the most heinous things you’ve ever seen? They offer the greasiest, fattiest, highest-calorie, most-processed and non-nutritious fare one can find anywhere. Deep-fried chicken “nuggets”, french fries, cheeseburgers, hotdogs, pizza, buttered noodles, greasy grilled cheese. Give me a break! Why exactly is this “kid” food? It does nothing whatever to help grow healthy minds and bodies—in fact, it does the very opposite, making kids sick and fat. How did we get here? Would you yourself ever order this phony food at a restaurant? Would you pull it out of the freezer and fry it up at home for your family? What lessons are we teaching our children by handing them this menu each time we take them out? Sorry, I’m getting worked up here, but the kids menu is symptomatic of a major cultural problem.
The problem, of course, is the food culture in this country, and it’s been shaped over the past many decades by a combination of governmental and business forces gone haywire. During the early and mid-20th century, the government created numerous farm subsidies which exploded (among other things) corn and soybean crops, leading to huge surpluses and attempts by farmers and business to find ways to incorporate these cheap crops into our food supply. The result has been a society in which foodstuffs have replaced real food, and we are living (and dying from) the results as nutrition-related disease skyrockets, and as our waistlines balloon.
Whatever the causes, we have to deal with the situation at hand, and a lot of awesome people are working hard on it. The first lady is helping reconnect kids with gardening and healthy eating, celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver are spreading the word about unhealthy food and going into communities and schools to initiate changes, and food writers like Michael Pollan and filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock are using their media to critique our food culture and offer insights about overcoming it.
Happily, some restaurant owners and chains are also rejecting the dreaded kids menu. The New York Times ran a nice little piece on Nicola Marzovilla, the owner of I Trulli restaurant in NY, for his refusal to serve children anything other than real food offered on his real menu. Last year, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the efforts of some restaurants to improve their awful kids’ menus, including a number of chains who are offering non-fried entrees, more fresh vegetables and fruits, and fewer or no sugary drinks.
You can be proactive, especially at restaurants you frequent. Tell the manager you want a kid’s portion of grilled chicken breast or salmon, that the processed, greasy offerings on the kids’ menu won’t do. Ask for those side veggies (sans the butter, breading, etc.) and cut-up fresh fruit. Request healthier side starches: maybe some baked potato or rice in lieu of fries, greasy hashbrowns, or buttery mashed potatoes. When you first sit down, ask your server right away for some cut-up fresh veggies for the kids to munch on as an appetizer—maybe even with a little humus dip, and send away that fattening, filling bread basket. Order water to drink and skip the juices and sodas. Then, at dessert time, do like many adults–order a dessert or two for the table, and give everyone a spoon for a few bites. They will get the satisfaction of something sweet without several hundred additional calories they don’t need.
We aren’t going to change our food culture wholesale overnight. This problem crept up on us over decades, and as far as I can see, the best we can do it address it one family and one child at a time. The kids’ menu is a great place to start.