Kicking the Kids’ Menu Habit

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fun with chow fun

I love to eat out. In addition to enjoying a vacation from cooking and doing the dishes, I get excited about trying new foods and discovering fresh ways to prepare old favorites. I was recently at Range where they had a cream of escarole soup. I’ve been eating escarole all my life but never thought to blend it with cream for a soup. What a great idea.

But eating out as a family is not always a satisfying experience, and can sometimes be downright stressful. In addition to the obvious issues of trying to enjoy a meal while a toddler sits on your lap and bangs a fork on your plate, there is the basic problem of small picky eaters raining on your dining parade. I’ve found that even the best little eaters can clam up, so to speak, when eating out. The child who enjoyed roasted pork with green beans the night before at home may insist she only likes grilled cheese when dining out. This can be frustrating, but you shouldn’t lose hope as there are some great ways to help your children become adventurous eaters in restaurants.

childrens menu

It seems that the idea of the limited and inexpensive kid menu has been adopted by not only by the chains, but also small independent places and even some high-end restaurants. And although some of these places offer decent dining options for children, most kid menus are limited to chicken fingers, mac and cheese (from a box), grilled cheese, and frozen pizza. It’s tempting to order one of these options when the price of an entrée is often two to three times more than that slice of kid pizza the boy at the next table is eating. So although my frugal side finds the price of these meals alluring, I try to resist. I am not advocating purchasing $20 entrées for your kids (unless you don’t mind paying that much and your kids will eat them). Rather I suggest exploring some other ways to get your children to eat “real” food when dining out.

chicken fingers

As with getting your kids to eat vegetables, helping your children to become adventurous diners takes a little work, but is really worth the trouble. Here are some things I have done in the past that have worked well for my family. If you have your own tips, please let me know about them as I’m always looking for good ideas.

1. Try a neighborhood family-friendly restaurant for your child’s first (and second) venture away from the kids’ menu. Italian, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants are great places to begin. If in a Chinese restaurant, start with the chow mein or chow fun. Your kids will most likely enjoy the familiarity of eating egg noodles, while also getting to try different sauces and flavors. Mexican places have a variety of kid-friendly bean, chicken and cheese dishes, and Italian restaurants have, of course, pizzas and pastas (although of a much higher caliber than what you usually get off a kids’ menu) in addition to everything else.

2. Make an effort to try something new yourself and tell your kids about it. Too often kids feel they are in the spotlight, having to try new things while we sit and watch them. So take your own culinary leap and tell your kids what you think about it.

3. If you’re on a budget (and who isn’t?) and are forced to choose between the cheaper kids fare or an expensive adult menu, ask your server if you can order the kid’s pasta but with some vegetables mixed in. Most restaurants are happy to oblige and this will give your child some other flavors to try while keeping the dining bill under control.

4. If your child is interested in trying something new, but is concerned about a topping or sauce that comes with it, ask for the questionable item to be placed on the side. Your child can then try the sauce or topping on his own terms.

5. Help your child make her own decisions. Look over the menu with her and discuss realistic options. Too often, kids’ menus are printed onto coloring sheets, which are then set before your children and immediately colored over. This means they often don’t even have the opportunity to explore the bigger menu. To give your children more choices, show them the main menu and see if there’s anything on it that interests them. They don’t have to be able to read to discuss what sounds good.

6. Let your child help you choose your own entrée and then share it with him. Often entrées are enormous and can easily be shared with a child. And, even if the entrées aren’t large where you’re dining, you can usually get a salad or appetizer to help fill you up. Give your child two or three choices and then ask for a second plate so you can divvy up the dinner. You can then discuss what you both think about the meal as you eat it together.

7. Try going to a restaurant where your children can see the prepared food and pick it out themselves. Dim sum is a great way to do this as most kids think it’s fun to choose plates from the carts brought around to each table. My kids also love sitting at the bar in sushi restaurants. They like to point at the sea weed, fish eggs, and cooked fish (I don’t allow them to eat raw fish), and then order themselves.

8. Let your child talk to the server. If he has questions about a dish, let him do the asking. If he is curious about something, let him speak up. Too often we try to speak for our kids and then get it wrong. This also helps teach your children that they have a voice when it comes to food — and, more importantly, life — which can help them feel empowered to make their own choices.

9. Let your kids try something exotic when eating out. This can range from encouraging them to use chop sticks to taking them to an Ethiopian restaurant where they get to eat with their hands. Most kids will be so focused on how they’re eating the food that they won’t be as nervous about what they’re eating.

10. Try to eat on the earlier side. Your kids will most likely be more alert and happier, you’ll have an emptier restaurant to dine in, and you’ll probably get a better table and service too.

11. Have fun with your kids. If you’re going to be stressed out taking them to a certain restaurant, choose another place. A family night out should be fun for both the parents and the kids.

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Category: kids and family, restaurants, bars, cafes

About the Author ()

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise's Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.
  • Nicole

    We have instituted “adventure bites” with our kids. We let them order off the kids’ menu if they so choose, but we require that they at least try one bite of something we order, either an appetizer or off our plates. It’s worked very well for us and our kids have now developed tastes for far more exotic plates than what normally is found on kids’ menus.

    We also ALWAYS ask for a vegetable substitute to the accompanying fries in kids’ meals. Generally, restaurants have been very accommodating; if they offer salads, it’s not too difficult to get some chopped vegetables and a little saucer of ranch or Italian dressing to dip.

    If restaurants do not have kids’ menus, we usually get the kids to either split a meal or order off the appetizers, as regular entrees are far too large-portioned for them.

    Using those guidelines, my husband and I have never curtailed our dining out because of our children. We’ve taken them to super-fancy restaurants to ethnic hole-in-the-wall places to the far reaches of other countries and they’ve been great dining partners.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Hi Nicole — Sounds like you have some great methods for getting your kids to eat well when dining out. I have also found that most restaurants are very happy to substitute in veggies, which is nice. Also, I agree that the appetizer menu can be a great resource. Thanks for mentioning it!