Going out to eat with my daughter is a challenge. She’s extremely picky when it comes to restaurant food, and she often picks what I could make for free at home (sometimes she even tells me that she’d rather I cook. That? Is flattering). That is to say, she likes to order from the children’s menu. I, on the other hand, cannot stand the children’s menu.

I find the children’s menu in most restaurants disgusting. For starters, people always complain that their kids will only eat macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly. Many parents want their kids to try and eat new foods, yet when we go to a restaurant, what happens? We are inundated with the same choices we are trying to remove from our kids’ diets.  Kids’ menus only reinforce the stereotype that kids will only eat these foods and, as parents, we’re left with limited choices.

Why are we trying to remove those foods? Because they’re unhealthy, boring, and bland.  Even meals that you think are healthy are not. For instance, you would think that a turkey and cheese sandwich from Panera Bread is healthy.  The sandwich alone is about 400 calories. Add in milk and the yogurt, and the meal is easily around 600 calories. That’s a lot for a small child to consume at one meal (and if your kid is anything like mine, she will eat almost all of it).

They’re also a ripoff. Kids’ meals are expensive. Most of the restaurant we frequent will nickel and dime you on the cost of a kids’ meal. A couple of weeks ago, we went to Saladworks. My daughter originally wanted soup but when she saw that she could get a sandwich, she wanted that instead.  In an effort to avoid a tantrum, I relented and let her pick a sandwich from the kids’ menu thinking that it would a) be smaller and b) a better value. It was not. The sandwich alone cost about $6. I thought it came with a side of apples or chips; it did not. I had to pay an extra $.75 for the apples. We got around the drink by getting a small cup and filling it with water but had we not done that, her drink would have been another $2.29. This is unacceptable to me.

So what can we do to combat the kids’ menu disaster? Well, there are a few things:

  • Share an entrée with your child. When you’re deciding what to order, have you child look at the menu with you. Talk about the different foods that are available and encourage your child to try one of the adult options. My kid is more apt to try something if I’m eating it so this works well for me. It’s more cost effective, too.
  • Ask your waiter/waitress if there are substitutions available. Let’s say you can’t get your child to order from off the kids’ menu but you know that the portion of fries that comes with the hamburger or hot dog is enough to feed two grown adults. Ask your server if you can get vegetables or some other substitution. If not, make sure you ask for a seriously reduced portion of fries. If that’s not possible, immediately remove half the fries from your child’s plate.
  • If the meal comes with a drink, ask what options are available. If milk is an option, ask if it’s whole, skim or something in between. If it’s only juice or soda, you can substitute with water instead or, for the juice, dilute it with water (we do this at home to cut the sugars that are in the juice). The third option is to limit the amount of glasses your child consumes. My daughter loves lemonade. When we go out to eat, we’ll sometimes let her get a glass of lemonade but we only let her have one. It definitely saves on calories (and emergency trips to the bathroom later on).
  • Make restaurant food an adventure. If your kid only wants grilled cheese or a hot dog, tell her that we eat in restaurants to try new foods; we can eat those other things at home. Use the menu as a sort of choose your own adventure book or a pirate’s treasure map to find something new.

Eating in restaurants is a perfect opportunity to teach our kids about new, exciting foods, as well as teaching them how to get the best value for your dollar. It’s not always possible and sometimes we just let our kids eat the hot dog, fries and lemonade. It’s OK. Sometimes.  We can just try again next time.

How do you try to combat the kids’ menu disaster?

Jana Lynch

Jana Lynch