If you’ve spent any time at all dining out with a person under the age of 10, you can probably recite a children’s menu from memory. I’ve rarely seen one that strays too far from this formula.
Macaroni and Cheese
It’s boring! But even worse than that, it’s not very healthy. Where are the fruits and vegetables? Where are the whole grains? Our kids deserve better. So why don’t restaurants simply offer tiny portions of the foods on their regular menu for their youngest patrons?
If you’re thinking to yourself, "It’s because kids won’t eat the food on the regular menu and they will eat those foods," then I have a question for you. At what point did we decide that there are "Grown Up Foods" and "Kid Foods"? It wasn’t always that way! Back on the farm, Ma and Pa were not heating up chicken nuggets and hot dogs for the kids while they roasted a chicken and made a salad for themselves! Our attachment to "Kid Food" is the result of years of marketing efforts by food manufacturers and restaurant owners, and it has far-reaching consequences. We’re raising a generation of picky eaters.
When babies first start to eat table food, they need to develop their palate to accommodate new flavors and textures. They are instinctively drawn to sweet and salty foods, just like adults are. And the more of those flavors they get, the more they want. So, well-intentioned parents start feeding their babies foods they’ve been taught are kid-friendly (largely by exposure to those children’s menus) and soon their kids are hooked.
Mom and Dad may be sitting down to a meal of salmon and asparagus and wild rice, but serving Junior an entirely separate dinner that they know he likes. It’s easier than fighting with him about trying something new. But the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is to expand the child’s palate and before long you have a picky eater on your hands.
What if instead of this approach, the child were offered the same foods mom and dad ate from the very beginning? Doing so would change everything. Children who are exposed to a wide range of flavors and textures early on have a better chance of eating a varied diet that will optimize their nutrition, and they grow up being more willing to try new foods throughout their lives.
So what’s a mother to do? At home, try offering a baby just beginning to eat table food small portions (pureed or mashed up with a fork or cut into small bits) of whatever you are eating*. She won’t reject it as "Grown Up Food" because it will be all that she knows. When you go to a restaurant, skim a little from your meal onto a bread plate to feed the little guys. The portion is probably too big for the adult meal anyhow! For older children, consider splitting an entrée between two of them or ordering them each their own adult meal, taking home the leftovers.
If your children have established some bad eating habits that they need to break, I’d suggest you slowly start to make changes. Add a new food onto their plate each day, leaving at least one of their old favorites in place so they don’t go into emotional withdrawal! For example, serve a small portion of mac and cheese, but add a few bites of chicken and some broccoli along with it, encouraging them to try everything on their plate. At a restaurant, invite them to try what you’ve ordered in addition to what they’ve ordered. Over time, as they learn to appreciate these new flavors and textures, they’ll start asking to try new things!
Let’s re-imagine the Children’s Menu and give our kids the chance to learn to appreciate a broad range of healthy foods. Have patience with them (and with yourself!) through any difficult dinners along the way – it will be worth it in the end when you can all sit down and enjoy a meal together.
*paying attention to your pediatrician’s guidelines about when to introduce various foods