Monday, June 7, 2010

Rant: Are Children That Picky?

Though I don't have any children of my own, I have plenty of nephews, nieces, cousins and friends with children. So I have seen my fair share of children's menus at restaurants, and they usually seem to be rather bland. They often only have a handful of options, and many of the same ones from restaurant to restaurant. Mac 'n cheese, chicken fingers, french fries, burgers, grilled cheese and similar such items.

But are children really that picky that they need such basic menus? Why couldn't they eat items off the regular menu, albeit in a smaller portion? And if they are so picky, why is that so? Are parents raising their children to be so picky?

I was a picky child in numerous ways, but I used to dine at the former Ship on Route 1 in Lynnfield, my meal of choice was the Alaskan King Crab Legs. It was not on the children's menu so I had to order the adult portion, but I did an admirable job of eating them each time. I also have a young niece, in pre-school, who loves lobster. If a child is going to a restaurant where seafood is prominent, shouldn't the children's menu reflect that as well? Why shouldn't there be fried clams, broiled scallops or clam chowder on that menu rather than chicken fingers and mac n' cheese?

A few restaurants get it, and treat children as if they had the taste of smaller adults. AKA Bistro in Lincoln has an intriguing children's menu that includes escargot, frog's legs, Hawaiian Poke, and Cod fillet. The menu does have Mac n' Cheese and a Burger, but it does not seem as if it is being dumbed down for children.

We should be teaching our children from an early age about good food. We should be broadening their palates, and not catering to blandness. Restaurants need to take part in this, and stop treating children as if they have little taste.

Are your children very picky, or have their palates been broadened?


Sunday Cook said...

I don't have children of my own, but I cook for a lot of families with children and I've noticed a few things:

if the parents are picky eaters, the children will be - they just model mom and dad's behavior

parents seem to be afraid to press their children to try new things, they'd rather stick with the safe option (like mac and cheese) than trying something new

if the parents like to try new things, the children will too (usually, but not always, I'll agree)

Through the mists of time, I also remember not being served "special" food - I ate what my parents did and that was that. Try something new or starve, it was a pretty easy choice to make. :-)

Scott said...

Sorry folks, if you don't have kids, you have no idea and your opinions on the subject are ill-informed at best. I eat, and cook, everything. Everything. I cook all kinds of stuff for my son, we go out to eat all the time, and all over the place (including a lot of time spent abroad).

He is a picky eater. It's been tremendously difficult to get him to try anything "outside the box". In the past, he would rather starve than eat. It's taken a good 8-9 years, in fact, to get him to the point where he'll try stuff without resistance; to his credit, he will now eat stuff that he finds he likes (yay, Tacos Lupita). I can tell you, that as a passionate and extremely skilled cook, having your kid not eat your food is like a kick in the face.

If you aren't a parent of a picky eater, *you have no clue*. So stop ranting about this. If you ever have kids of your own... on the one hand, good luck with this. On the other hand, my secret desire for revenge hopes that you have a picky eater; then you'll know what it's like.

Don't believe me. Go ask Jody Adams, the owner of Rialto. One of her kids was a picky eater, too, and it was as devastating to her as it was to me.

David Dadekian said...

Of course I agree with you Rich. I think it's the word "picky" that's in use when describing children's eating. We gave our daughter everything we ate, including out at restaurants, and there were clearly things she didn't love but I wouldn't call her picky. What I noticed is that she wants repetitious patterns. So for a long time now if she sees cut up meat she won't eat it. But if she sees soup, regardless of what's in it, down it goes. Believe me, it's frustrating at times, especially since it will change pretty randomly. So maybe picky's not the right word, just routine-oriented at a young age.

As for children's menus the only reason we'd order off one is for portion control. Most of the places we go don't have them. But I will give a thumbs up to Chipotle (the only fast food we've been to). Their kids meal is a plate of black beans, cilantro rice, a cheese tortilla (quesadilla), chips and organic 1% milk all for $2.99. Very nice.

The Two Palaverers said...

We have raised two children. If you plant a bean, you get a bean… Our children (now teenagers) were always encouraged to taste and eat whatever we were having. No separate meals were prepared. When small, they would often order an appetizer as their entrée instead of standard kid fare. On occasion, they would not care for an item, but that was ok as long as they continued to try new foods. Cooking, shopping, gardening and eating as a family also makes for more adventurous eaters. The challenge for us now is accommodating their picky eater teenage friends.

umommy said...

I agree with David's comments. I have two boys and they thrive on routine. Going out to eat at a new restaurant is definitely out of routine for most families. I think it's easy for some families to order something familiar for their kids that they know they will enjoy (and hopefully have a quiet meal), and that's typically off a children's menu.

I am trying to start them on a "routine" of trying different things. There are great books out there on expanding kids' palettes - The Gastrokid cookbook, Hungry Monkey, & My 2 Year Old Eats Octopus to name a few.

As for eating out, I have learned to appreciate restaurants that offer a smaller portions or anything besides chicken fingers and french fries frankly :)

Scott said...

If your kid will deign to try new foods, leaving some things behind, he or she is not a genuine "picky eater". Seriously. A genuine picky eater is a fate worse than death for a foodie.

I'm happy to be past it, finally. Now I have a kid who is discriminating, but will try most things, and enjoy many of them.

Don't put the blame on parents for "stick[ing] with the safe option", at least not all of them. Sometimes your kid is just intractable, and there is literally nothing -- not even trying to just wait for them to get so hungry they'll eat anything (*) -- that will work.

(*) Believe me, I tried this, too; but there's this little issue of behavior that borders on child abuse that you have to keep in mind.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Mary for your comments. I do agree that parents' attitudes towards food are often reflected in what their children eat.

Sorry Scott, but one does not need to have children to understand these issues. We all have other relatives and friends who have children, and see what happens with them. By your same logic, you can't speak about this subject in general terms either. All you can talk about is your own child, and your experiences may not be the norm. If you try to refer to the children of others, like Jody Adams, then you are doing the same thing you told me I could not do, talk about the experiences of others.

Hi David, thanks for your comments too. Children don't have to love everything to eat, but it is good when they are not limited to a handful of things they will eat. And nice to know about Chipotle.

Hi Palaverers,
Thanks and I agree with your comments too, and am glad your children enjoy food as they do.

Hi UMommy,
Thanks for your comments, and glad to see you are trying to expand the horizons of your children. Nice to known about those books too.

Tricerapops said...

i'm with scott above. to me, it's not a case of encouraging kids to expand their palates - as much as it's just getting them to eat.

if your kid is not taking in food, there's a level of anxiety that comes about with this, and my wife in particular goes nuts. it's the parental instinct of making sure your kid is fed (even though we KNOW our kids won't starve themselves). 99% of the time, it comes down to the easiest path to getting your kid to take in calories and nutrients. so as long as the food is not completely unhealthy - you live and die by these mini battles. i believe over time, their palates will expand on their own, on their own terms. for now, let mom/dad eat in peace and kids - eat your veggies please.

MichellePC said...

Great post, Richard! I agree that the majority of children's menus are nothing but fattening, overly simple options. My 3-year-old nephew's favorite foods, for instance, are cous cous, beets and hummus, yet when we go out to eat, he settles for a hot dog and some canned fruit, drenched in heavy syrup. It's pretty sad that so many restaurants have the same 5 options for kids, most of them unhealthy and flavorless.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Tricerapops:
Though you may be correct in some families, there are plenty of others where it is a matter of parents not trying to expand their children's palates. Restaurants don't help the situation with very limited children's menus. Keep the easy items, but add others too.

Hi Michelle:
Thanks, and it seems restaurants are just being lazy by making such easy children's menus. They should spend a little time making a better and expanded menu for children, something to expand their palates, as well as something healthier.

Sunday Cook said...

Checking back - was cooking for children and their parents all day ...

Scott, I don't have my own children, but I cook for five different families - that means I prepare meals that are eaten (or not) by 16 children each week. I have had, several times, the distinct pleasure of having a four year old ruthlessly dissect my food and share his negative opinions with me. I have also had the pleasure of a parent telling me that a new food went over really well.

My experience reinforces what I said before, picky parents = picky kids in general. I do have two adventurous families where one child is picky and the other isn't. I do wonder if some of what we see as "pickiness" comes from a risk-averse personality and/or "supertaster" taste buds. Kids do like routine but there's no reason why new foods can't be introduced into that routine.

Another way parents can get themselves into trouble - and I have observed this at my client's homes and at the bakery booth I run at a farmers' market - is by offering *too many* choices. A three year old doesn't need a dozen choices offered to them for lunch, they need two, maybe three (PB&J or grilled cheese). I've watched kids absolutely melt down when they are read a whole laundry list of choices at my booth (I have 3 types of scone, 4 cookies, 2-4 breakfast pastries, 2 bar cookies). Parents, you know your child - does he want a cookie or a brownie?

Going to Richard's initial point, I think restaurants that have children's menus feel like they need to provide the chicken finger-type options because their customers would walk away without them. Echoing a few other commenters: I think restaurants should just provide the option for smaller, kid-sized portions of their menu items, not provide special items that are just for kids.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you 100%. This is a huge opportunity that restaurants are missing. Put a few traditionally kid-friendly things on the kids menu, but put a few things that are smaller and/or simpler versions of the main menu, too. I know I would have frequented a restaurant like that when my kids were little.

In my experience with picky kids, there seem to be two kinds. The kind that are genuinely picky and really can't cope with anything but the familiar and bland, no matter how hungry they may be. Mary mentioned supertasters, and I think she's onto something there.

The other kind are kids who would try new things if their parents simply refused to make them a special meal. When my kids were little, they could have what's for dinner or a PB&J. I think it was the cold sandwich vs the nice, hot meal that was the key. If I'd offered mac & cheese or what was for dinner, they probably would have happily eaten mac & cheese every night for a year. It worked, and my kids were never picky, but again, they were certainly not in that group that is genuinely distressed over new food items, just garden-variety risk adverse, as many kids are.

Jill from North Shore Dish said...

Didn't mean to be anonymous! That last comment is from me--clicked too fast.

Lindsay H. said...

I don't have children, but I do have a 13 year old brother. Granted, 13 may be considered 'no longer a kid', but during the 12 years he WASN'T 13 he wasn't picky. In fact he was dreadfully experimental.

I think a lot of kids are experimental at very young ages. But what might happen is that they have a bad experience with a food and ultimately rite it off for years, or at least until they're forced to try it again or accidentally try it. And also maybe if parents encouraged kids to give it another go. Can't say much for that tho, as I'm not a parent lol