Who is that handsome young man? Ok then, not young but that was the best part of 20 years ago when, as the nursery chef at the UEA, I won (that's right, won, not just a runner up!) the inaugural 'Organix and Soil Association' nursery food awards cookbook prize. (Yes, we were also 'highly commended' in the main category too!) The other one is TV chef, Paul Rankin. Our staff had been led to believe Jamie Oliver was going to present the prizes, but he was otherwise engaged, much to their disappointment! By the way, if you happen to have a copy of that cookbook, there were only 200 printed, and I haven't got one anymore!
I was asked to take on the UEA Nursery kitchen because it had a vegetarian menu, and I was also the only chef in the UEA kitchen with young children at the time. For four years I catered for some of my most, if not discerning, certainly forthright customers! Up to 90 under fives each day, receiving morning and afternoon snacks, and a cooked lunch, which could be anything from a chickpea curry to a homemade pizza, soup to stew, and seasonal salads and pasta dishes. I often had parents accosting me asking how I got so-and-so to each such-and-such as they wouldn't touch it at home? But, truth be told, it was probably less to do with the food, than the communal dining, and the example of the other kids and nursery staff who enthusiastically joined in too.
Years later I took on River Green restaurant, which had, and still has a separate kids' menu, as many restaurants in the UK do. However, in much of Europe it is more common for restaurants to not have a kids menu, and if they do have a concession for children, its to produce, on demand, a smaller version of an adult meal. We have just had another of our occasional revamps of the River Green Kids menu, and it is now a long way from the one I inherited nine years ago, with its' Linda McCartney sausage and chips, mini pizza and frozen falafels. At the time, we were even bringing in frozen mac 'n' cheese from our sister business in Suffolk!
The big change, and certainly controversial this time around, is that the Mac 'n' Cheeze (long since changed to in-house and vegan as standard,) has finally disappeared! Other than the Wellington (also a legacy dish) I can't think of any other dish on our menu that has been so troublesome! For a start, it's the only pasta we cook these days, and being gluten, has to have it's own separate preparation, but as we offered a gluten free alternative, we have to make the sauce gluten free and be ready to cook gluten free pasta from scratch at a moment's notice. Because it's aimed at four year-olds, it's made with no added salt or seasoning. However, big children, and even adults who should have moved on to more challenging food will still insist on having it, including a few curmudgeons who feel they have been blackmailed into attending a vegan restaurant by family members, and maintain there's nothing on the main menu that they're prepared to eat! I eventually barred any adult from ordering the dish after one particular reviewer, having insisted on having the kids' Mac 'n' Cheese, then gave us a one-star review because it was bland! (I can confirm, it was bland, but that's the point!)
So, why have a kids' menu? What's the point, and if you have one, what should be on it?
Obviously for very young children there are issues about how much sugar and salt they should be consuming. As adults many of us consume too much of both, but small children should be limited even further, and at one time I could quote you the recommended maximum salt intake for all ages under five. So, it's good practice to have dishes that contain less of both, than their adult versions (hence the bland-ness). Ironically, in a bid to be more accessible, many kids' menus are packed out with convenience foods that are actually higher in salt and sugar than their freshly prepared equivalents. We've always been happy to supply crudites or plain cooked vegetables on request, though don't expect us to have cucumbers in January (unless they're reduced for quick sale.)
On the whole, the main requirement for a kid's meal is that it's smaller than an adult's, and that should deal with the salt and sugar to an extent. But what is the purpose of it? For the family it should be a dish that enables the child to join in fully with the occasion. Children can quickly develop controlling habits that gain them extra attention and special treatment. If a kid's meal is comparable to an adult's meal in style and substance, they don't have special meals and special treats, they can participate equally without fuss... Even if it can come with a considerable amount of mess! The more kids get used to exceptional, special, free gifts, etc. the more that expect it, and the more struggle you have when trying to feed them every day meals. Yes, a Happy Meal, or a jungle-themed lunchbox can be a treat, but it should be only a treat, because inevitably there comes a time when you have to tell them that they're too old for the kids' meal and they're faced with something unfamiliar and have to learn new eating habits.
In my opinion, the purpose of the kid's menu is to introduce the child to the restaurant's style of food, whether English or Indian, Vegan or Vegetarian, fish or fowl. If you haven't got pizza on the adult menu, why is it on the kids' menu? Conversely, if your menu has spicy dishes, don't be afraid of offering spice for kids! Children often love spice, even hot chilli can be fun to eat! However you do it, whether dialled-down versions of the adult menu, small versions of the grown-up dishes, or bits of dishes combined in less-challenging versions, I would like a kid's menu to relate to the main menu. Kids might not get on with the most challenging flavours and spices (they start out with an appetite for sweeter dishes, sour and umami tastes will come later.) There is no reason however that the entire menu should be without challenge or flavours that adults enjoy. I think that kids food should introduce them to sensible eating habits; Serving only un-challenging dishes will simply lead to bad eating habits in adulthood. The intention is that the child will get used to the experience of eating-out and sharing with friends and family in a relaxed, natural way, and will be a customer themselves of course in the future! Part of that is not just the food, and the menu, but the behaviour and the attitude. If your kids only experience eating out at fast fooderies and takeaways, they don't learn to enjoy the experience of eating out and interacting politely with others. My children enjoyed a Happy Meal like any of their friends, but we would also a enjoy a trip to a 'knife and fork' restaurant when we would take longer over our food and be on best behaviour! (Little did they know, that 'knife and fork' might be a fairly loose demarcation of what could have actually been quite a downmarket seaside restaurant! Perhaps we should have set the standard at 'tablecloth' restaurants, but that would have ruled River Green out!)
All that of course is to say: "Sorry about the Mac 'n' Cheeze, but it just doesn't belong." We're still going with a Kids' Menu, but we're making sure it relates seamlessly with the adult one, so the transition between the two will be smoother.