The Issues with Kids’ Menus, and Treating Kids Better in Restaurants

Updated June 25, 2021

Our then-8-year-old grandaughter Allie with her first buffalo burger at the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, on June 28, 2019.

Why Boilerplate Kids Menus are Nonsense

Kids get decent choices for breakfasts at restaurants. There might be cereal with milk, oatmeal, eggs with toast, or pancakes and waffles. But to be honest, Kids’ Menus for lunch and dinner can be quite lame. They generally consist of the following items:

  • Egg Sandwich with Bacon
  • Grilled Cheese
  • Hot Dog
  • Corndog
  • Chicken Tenders
  • Spaghetti
  • Fish & Chips
  • Flatbread Pizza
  • Two Slider Burgers
  • Quarter-pound Burger, cheese optional
  • Above served with French fries and a beverage

There might also be ice cream for their choice of dessert, or a cookie.

The reality, however, is that this isn’t generally how kids eat at home. Unless the parents or guardians are making meals specifically for the kids, they’re instead serving them smaller portions of what the adults are eating.

Kids can, and should, do the same at restaurants. They can certainly learn to order their own food.

At the top of this piece is a photo of our granddaughter Allie. With my wife being a travel nurse, we were able to take her from Michigan to stay with us in Cody, Wyoming, for two months during the summer of 2019. I took that photo as evidence of her getting her first buffalo burger, the day after I had brought her out there.

You may ask, why did Allie have a buffalo burger at the age of 8 years old? Frankly, she wanted one. When I’d asked her what she wanted for that meal, she said she’d always wanted to try buffalo. So, I made sure she did just that. She had many buffalo burgers over those two months, either at restaurants, or I’d make them for the three of us where we were staying.

Granted the Kids’ Menu at that same Irma Hotel in 2021 is somewhat better than most:

Kids Breakfast
#1 The Lil’ Wrangler One pancake w/choice of one egg or 2 strips of bacon or 2 links sausage
#2 The Rough Rider One egg w/2 strips of bacon or 2 links sausage & toast
#3 French Toast Golden battered bread w/ bacon or 2 links sausage
#4 Lil’ Bill Cody One biscuit w/gravy

Kids Lunch & Dinner
All served w/chips or fries & small soft drink
#5 Ranger Side Kick Chicken tenders w/sauce
#6 Lil’ Doggy Corn dog, on a stick
#7 The Fisherman Golden fried fish fillet
#8 The Bank Burglar Hamburger w/cheese
#9 The Dude! Classic grilled cheese
#10 Spaghetti & Meatball

The breakfast selections at the Irma Hotel are indeed scaled-down versions of meals intended for people 11-years-old and up. And while the rest mimics Kids’ Menus of other restaurants, at least “#7 The Fisherman Golden fried fish fillet” is an honest fillet instead of being a frozen rectangle.

My own rule for my kids has always been simple:

“You can’t say you don’t like a food until you actually try it.”

Left: Allie following my rule on July 13, 2019, and completely disliking dill pickle soda.

Because of this, our kids as adults are still quite the “adventurous eaters.” Our kids will try, and likely enjoy, just about anything, from blood-tongue sausage, to head cheese, eel, octopus, crawfish, tripe in the Mexican soup called Menudo, beef tongue in Lengua Tacos… and yes, beef heart. My wife also enjoys sliced and fried beef testicles in the dish that’s politely called “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, which are popular items on (ironically-enough) Appetizer menus at restaurants in Cody, Wyoming.

However, an issue did develop with the beef hearts in authentic Flint Coney sauce. My wife and our daughter became squeamish about eating the Coney only after they learned the heart was the main ingredient. Nothing physical changed: The recipe certainly didn’t change, as the amount of heart on each Coney is nearly identical regardless of the restaurant. Only their perception of the enjoyability of the dish changed.

I put “adventurous eaters” in quotations above as it’s an American misnomer: Being an “adventurous eater” only means you’re willing to try foods other peoples and cultures eat each and every day. Ironically though, the term also belies the fact that the U.S. population hasn’t always been this way. “Adventurous eaters” in the U.S. are, in fact, quite a recent development.

While the term “nose-to-tail eating” may appear to be a recent “fad” it is how the rest of the world eats. At the same time, because the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, such meals used to be standard fare in American households and restaurants. “Nose-to-tail eating” is actually a return to those earlier dishes, not anything “new.” This can be seen in recipes in earlier editions of popular cookbooks, most of which don’t appear in current versions of the same cookbooks. For example, the current cookbook known as The Fanny Farmer Cookbook was first published as The Boston Cooking School Cook Book in 1896. Fannie Merritt Farmer was Principal of the school at the time, having taken over the position from Mary J. Lincoln in 1891. Farmer died on January 16, 1915, but the 1921 edition of the “cook book” still bore her name as Author. This edition contained recipes for calf’s liver, sweetbreads, tripe, calf’s heads and tongues, and braised ox joints.

Determining What Kids Like

Allie with a Nutella crepe at Cody Coffee + Creperie, while watching the two-aircraft flightline at Cody Regional Airport on July 18, 2019. (The Creperie is now closed at that location but is still in operation in the downtown area.)

Our daughter, who’s 26 at the time of this writing, and who enjoyed her first fried alligator at the age of 9 at my urging, has told me about a wonderful seafood broil restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, and how she could eat their crawfish all day long, something she’d never tried before. “I don’t know why they say to suck everything out of the head”, she told me, “There’s nothing in there.”

But … she doesn’t like cornbread. I can’t get her to try different versions at all, either. Go figure.

I recently received some texts from her as she had taken Allie, now 10, to that same seafood broil restaurant. The texts suddenly changed: “I like the crawfish papa.” I was now talking with Allie, who was being taught my rule. I asked “Did Mommy teach you to get everything in the heads, too?” “Ya but she peeled it for me we got old bay and Cajun … we got corn and potatoes with the old bay seasoning on it.”

Kids don’t need to be coddled with Kids’ Menus designed to offer supposed “kid-friendly” items. What they need is to be challenged with not only learning themselves what foods they like, but how to order those same foods in restaurants. It’s seriously annoying to me to hear a parent or guardian say things such as “I always order for him…”, “She won’t like that…”, or “Don’t order that, they’ll just end up throwing it away.” This is part of why kids can’t learn which foods they actually enjoy. They can’t then learn how to order their own food either. Once these statements are made, those kids are no longer paying attention, and they are no longer learning how the adults are ordering.

Challenge kids with foods, not only at home, but also at restaurants. It can be simple things, from letting them order the Soup Of The Day, to getting some deep-fried mushrooms and sharing them, or letting them say what they want on their burger, if a burger is indeed what they want. It should be their choice, so they can begin to learn what foods they like.

Letting Kids Order For Themselves

Allie with long-time host Tim at the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, on July 25, 2019, after he’d taught her some magic tricks and given her a “Bang!” gun.

The question to answer is this: When do you start letting kids order for themselves? Many Kids’ Menus specify they’re for those younger than ages 10 or 12. However, this doesn’t quite match up with reality for a great many kids. In Cody, Wyoming, at the age of 8, Allie was quite capable of ordering food for herself in restaurants. By then she already had an idea of what some of her real likes and dislikes were, and a few things she might even want to try, like that buffalo burger.

Mary and I have six kids between us and, at this point, 7 grandkids. Paying attention to what they’ll eat and what they won’t eat is a matter of paying attention. This also involves asking them, at home and at a relatively young age, what they might want to eat. For lunch, would they want a PB&J, a lunchmeat and cheese sandwich, or a grilled cheese? To drink, there’s water and milk… Asking questions such as these sets them up for being able to order at restaurants when they have other choices in front of them.

While the abilities of every child is certainly different. parents and guardians have a responsibility to make sure kids can look at a menu or understand when someone reads their food choices to them, and make up their own minds when they’re able. Refraining from saying making statements such as “Oh, you won’t like that” lets them learn what they like as well as showing respect for their own decisions. This action, as well as allowing them to challenge their own food experieces, can be a solid portion of their overall growth.

Creating Restaurant-Specific Kids’ Menus

To think that Kids’ Menus at restaurants should be scaled-down versions of the adult menus is an understatement. The product is already there. The managers don’t then have to order and stock certain ingredients just for kids. If you’re operating a barbecue restaurant and you’re ordering and stocking hot dogs with a small number of buns, or chicken tenders, or even cups of frozen macaroni and cheese, just for the Kids’ Menu … Well, that makes no sense at all. A Kids Menu for a barbecue restaurant could instead look like this:

  • Smoked hot dog on a grilled New England bun
  • Smoked sausage on a grilled New England bun
  • Kids Two Pulled Pork Sliders
  • Kids Pork Belly Burnt End Sandwich
  • Kids Brisket Sandwich
  • Two Chicken Drummies
  • Two Ribs (pork or beef)

Above items served with fries and a beverage

Left: Allie devouring a handmade breakfast burrito at the St. Mary’s Medical Center cafeteria in Cody, Wyoming, on July 12, 2019.

Some of these items are messy finger foods. Should that matter? Nope. The guests know they’re taking their kids to a BBQ joint. Parents or guardians should dress their kids accordingly, while the restaurant should have disposable or washable bibs as well as facial and hand wipes avaailable. (Yes, I included smoked hot dogs in this menu. They’re really good.)

Some might question my including pork belly on such a menu. And if they don’t know either, many adults shy away from such things, solely because of the term itself. But this is the perfect time to tell kids “Pork belly is what bacon is made from.” It becaomes a teaching moment, which should be the whole point of such a menu anyway.

Let’s go back to the “boilerplate” Kids’ Menu I listed earlier:

  • Egg Sandwich with Bacon
  • Grilled Cheese
  • Hot Dog
  • Corndog
  • Chicken Tenders
  • Spaghetti
  • Fish & Chips
  • Flatbread Pizza
  • Two Slider Burgers
  • Quarter-pound Burger, cheese optional
  • Above served with French fries and a beverage

While hot dogs, spaghetti, and fish and chips might be on the adults’ menu at a diner, it’s likely that chicken tenders, flatbread pizza, and sliders are not. I’ve seen this same type of menu in countless places, from Asian restaurants, to steakhouses, to even BBQ joints, places where these ingredients may not be duplicated anywhere on the other menu. Taking clues from the Kids’ Menu at the Irma Hotel we can come up with a better “boilerplate” Kids’ Menu for diner-style restaurants which carry these same items on their adult menus:

Kids’ Breakfast

  • One pancake w/choice of one egg or 2 strips of bacon or 2 links sausage
  • One egg w/2 strips of bacon or 2 links sausage & toast
  • Two-egg omelet with cheese and one meat
  • Golden battered French Toast w/ bacon or 2 links sausage
  • One biscuit w/gravy

Kids’ Lunch & Dinner

  • Soup of the Day
  • Tortilla Chips with Spinach-Artichoke Dip
  • Mozzarella Sticks
  • Fried Mushrooms
  • Calamari

Main Dishes

  • Kids’ Chicken Ceasar salad
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwich*
  • Fish and chips
  • Quarter-pound cheeseburger*
  • Spaghetti and garlic bread
  • Fried chicken drummies*
  • 4oz Pork chop*
  • 4oz NY strip steak*
  • * Served with fries. All entrees include a beverage.

Giving the kids appetizer options helps teach them how to order those items, and how they’ll arrive in relation to their entree. Adding pork chop and steak options begins to teach them how such items will need to be ordered. Allie learned these things at the age of 8 while in Wyoming with us, and she loves good calamari. Our daughter is happily continuing this teaching.

It doesn’t matter what kind of restaurant you have. You needn’t shortchange kid with the “boilerplate” Kids’ Menu. Extend the concept you’re so proud of to the kids, be it Asian, German, Polish, smokehouse, Greek coney island, whatever it is you cook. Help teach the kids your kind of food.

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