Food for Thought: The Kid’s Menu

Food for Thought: The Kid's Menu

Have you ever wondered how the kid’s menu started? Who made the decision that restaurants in the United States should offer children chicken nuggets, fries, macaroni and cheese, pizza, soda, etc., and that the foods should be listed on colorfully decorated paper with an animal or cartoon character drawn on it. Would you believe the Prohibition has a lot to do with it?

During the Prohibition, restaurants went from preferring that children did not enter their establishments to luring them in as one way to make up income from lost alcohol sales. Restaurants created a fun looking menu filled with food just for them. In fact, restaurants did not allow children to eat the same food as the adults. These menus were greatly influenced by the premier parenting expert of that time, pediatrician Emmett Holt. He recommended foods that were boring and simple with little nutrition or flavor. In general, Dr. Holt advised that “young children were not to be given fresh fruits, nuts, or raisins in their rice pudding. Pies, tarts, and indeed “pastry of every description” were “especially forbidden,” and on no account were such items as ham, bacon, corn, cod, tomato soup, or lemonade to pass a child’s lips before his 10th birthday.” He also recommended that children should be given stale bread and that children should not be offered good food because they will then decline plain food. During this time, the culture of children eating simpler and different meals than their parents became commonplace. And with the influence of the food industry and influx of processed foods in our diet in the 1970s, we ended up with the current kid’s menu.

As a result, in restaurants, children are eating food that is processed, not nutritious, and high in sugar, fat, salt, and calories. In general, the number of calories in one children’s meal is half or more than half of their daily caloric allotment. Interestingly, studies have shown that children who eat the same foods as their parents versus specialized kid’s meals are healthier.

Because the idea of a kid’s menu and the bland items on it have been part of the American culture since around the 1920’s, does that mean we need to keep this tradition? Not necessarily, but it might be a tough one to break. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt generally taste good. Also, pickiness is a common complaint parents have about their children’s eating habits. We all probably know of at least one child who will only eat chicken nuggets and fries and who thinks vegetables are the enemy. However, children in many other countries, including India, Mexico, Chile, and France eat the same foods that the adults do. Hating vegetables is not a universal phenomenon.  

So then, how do we change from the adult and kid’s menus to just one menu? Below are some tips including many from Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything. She moved from Canada to France with her husband and two young children and saw a huge transformation in how and what her children ate during their one year there.

Some insights from France:

  • A menu from the Resturant Gardes in Paris in 1900 did offer a couvert d’enfant or a child’s meal. The food options were the same as for the adults, but the one difference was the portion size was smaller.
  • There is an expectation that children will eat what the adults do and that they will try different foods.
  • The focus of food is pleasure, not fuel or vitamins and minerals.
  • The school system helps teach children about food. Starting at the kindergarten age, schools serve four course lunches that include a vegetable starter, a main course with a grain or vegetable, cheese, dessert (which is usually fresh fruit), a side of baguette, and water. They expect children to sit at the lunch table for at least 30 minutes. This is so they can take the time to eat and enjoy their food.
  • This is mirrored at home where families eat two to three course dinners together at the table. There are no distractions from phones, TVs, and computers. Meals are a fun family time instead of something that needs to be done before you go on to the next thing.
  • Children do not randomly snack but eat one snack after school. The children are then hungry at mealtimes and will then eat what is front of them instead of being picky.

Additional Tips:

  • Start children young. Have them eat the same foods that you eat as soon as they move on from breast milk or formula to solid foods.  
  • Set expectations that they should try and eat different foods. It may take time, but the taste for foods can be developed. Children are not born picky, but it is something they learn. Ask children to at least taste the new food. It may take children about 7-12 times to try a food before they will eat it.
  • Have children learn about different foods. Take them food shopping with you, show them and talk to them about food, have them help you cook, or at least be there when you prepare the food. This will take away the unknown and allow them to become familiar with various foods.

In an age when childhood obesity and diabetes is on the rise, finding ways to teach our children to have an open mind to a variety of foods and how to eat mindfully should no longer be prohibited.


Photo taken by Richard Schatzberger on Flickr


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