Why is it that restaurants put so much effort into preparing flavoursome meals for adults – fusing cuisines, experimenting with ingredients, prepping a plate that is good enough to photograph, and then think that we will be prepared to spend good money on something they have grabbed out of the freezer, thrown into the deep fryer then slapped on a plate?
Children’s menus seem to be the same world-over: mac and cheese, chicken nuggets with chips, fish fingers with chips, pizza margarita, spaghetti bolognese, hamburger and chips. Yes, these six items with practically no nutritional value, that we could make ourselves with very little effort in the comfort of our own home at about a quarter of the price seem to have some bizarre monopoly on those pieces of A3 paper with mazes and colouring-in that get plopped in front of our kids with a handful of coloured pencils. If we are really lucky, ice-cream gets thrown in too. And to drink? Soda, of course.
But it’s not just about health. We can cook healthy meals for our children at home. When we go out as couples do we ponder the calories of every dish? Some might, but I can tell you, they don’t enjoy a gourmet dinner nearly as much as I do. No, when we pay for someone else to cook for us, we want it to taste good, and for many, we want it to be something we can’t cook with ease at home. Why should it be any different for children?
“Family restaurants” seem to put the emphasis on decor and entertainment, not the food, which is what they are actually supposed to be selling us. It’s all upside down. Adult restaurants generally theme the decor to be a stylish background, but those aiming for the children are garishly coloured, full of toys, distractions, loud music, waiters on rollerskates – how is this supposed to encourage our child to understand what dining out is all about? Especially when all the literature regarding feeding children seems to indicate that limiting distraction is the key to good eating.
Until our youngest child was three, we refused to take them out to restaurants with us because of what they would do to our dining experience. Now, we don’t take them out because when we get to the restaurant we are faced with choices that are trash, or expensive food they refuse to eat. I got to the stage where I would pack them a vegemite sandwich, and then go out and order them a banana smoothie while we ate two or three courses.
The best meals my children have received while dining out have been in venues with no designated kids menu. Great restaurants will have service staff who will often speak with the chef and come up with something special – I still remember the lunch at La bastide du clos, where the chef whipped up a buttery pasta with tiny florets of broccoli and a tender juicy slab of medium-cooked eye fillet, sliced thinly on top. And at La Falconniere, where the tagliatelle primavera prepared specially off the bat was filled with such beautiful tomatoes it tasted like summer. That’s two places in a year and a half who knew how to cook for children. Both of them overseas.
What the hell is that about? And why do we, as consumers, allow it to continue?
For someone like me, who views dining as one of my favourite hobbies, “kids menus” as they stand send a very bad message to my children. I would prefer my kids to see “dining out” as an experience where they will get to eat “fancy food”, and “special stuff” – otherwise they will always want to treat themselves with junk. It’s hard enough weaning them off McDonalds as it is.
Australian Masterchef has just taken their TV show one step further, and are now showing Junior Masterchef – there is a stack of 10 – 13 year old kids cooking food I would be proud of. My dad thinks it’s slave labour. I think it’s wonderful. It shows me that kids are interested in food far past the standard adult understanding. We should not assume that because they are little they don’t understand taste. As we age, our tastebuds and sense of smell gradually die off, so children are actually super tasters. This is why they like what many adults consider to be bland food. But if they are more sensitive to flavours – why not arouse them and inspire them as we do with ourselves? In most countries, people start a Chef’s Apprenticeship at age 15. It is our duty as parents to make sure they understand food well before this time, otherwise we might be starving them of a career opportunity.
So what has started this rant? The Mövenpick UAE have just launched a children’s menu that I absolutely approve of. And this got me to thinking – WHY are they the only ones doing this? It’s not rocket science.
- Take ingredients you know kids love
- Mix them with ingredients you know parents want to feed them
- Make them pretty and yummy.
I tried many of the dishes, and would happily eat them myself, especially the chicken urumaki (recipe here). I also love the way they have used toys to liven up a plate – I showed them to Lion (8yo boy) and he was drawn to a dish with a spinach pattie. I asked their PR manager if they expected the toys to be returned with the empty plate. “Well… we hope so, but we are expecting to lose a few.” I’d be happy if they put the price up by 5 dirhams and I could reward Lion with the little construction worker for trying something new (or at least letting mummy and daddy enjoy a meal without being child-whipped in front of everybody)
So let’s start a movement. Can we do to restaurants what Jamie Oliver has done to school cafeterias? Food Revolution has come part of the way – who’s going to take up the mantle now?
The Power Bites menu is available at many Mövenpick hotels and resorts across the Middle East. There is even a current promotion. Mövenpick’s four venues in Dubai are all participating (Bur Dubai, Deira, JBR and Ibn Buttuta Gate) and includes items such as Fruit sushi, “paint your own” carrots, ninja power lunch (bento box), curry caterpillar, chicken breast with carrot crisps, construction breakfast (above), mac and cheese with a difference and some great desserts too.
Why don’t you comment below if you can name some other restaurants that really know how to treat the kids.