I love chicken tenders. They satisfy my primal needs for both tenderness and sustenance. They tend to come with sauces. They taste fairly good. However, when I’m out at a restaurant with my kids and, tucked underneath their menus like a foetus in foetu, is a children’s menu enumerating the fingers on offer, I feel a great rage erupts in my soul and my wrath spills from my mouth like spit-up. “NO,” I shout-whisper, “YOU CANNOT HAVE THE CHICKEN TENDERS!” I tell my kids to have the spaghetti carbonara or the shrimp pad thai or the khade tamatar ka murgh. I tell them that children’s menus suck. I tell them the truth.
With their cute crayons and bullshit mazes, connect-the-dots and word searches, kids menus provide a predictable diversion and a way to opt out of a shared experience. No matter how refined the adult cuisine or how innovative–regardless of the chef’s provenance or the kitchen’s expertise–the children’s menu offers the same standardized and unchallenging fare of fried/bland “classics.” Chefs will tell you they feel pressured to offer a children’s menu to appear more “kid-friendly.” That makes sense. No one want to dine out next to a truculent little fuck. But should diminishing children’s experience of eating while actively avoiding educating them about food really count for kid friendliness? Nope. The kid’s menu is an ex post facto justification for parental laziness and panic.
What do children learn from children’s menus? That going with a meh sure thing is better than gambling on greatness. Natural risk aversion already leads most people to making illogical decisions. Children’s menus reinforce both that unreasonable cowardice and a dismissive attitude toward food specifically. A kid who orders chicken tenders becomes a tyrant ordering steaks well-done. Part of what parents teach is taste and, yes, taste matters. Taste matters a lot. Adult relationships are largely built on affinity. Kids need to be bought to understand that.
But let’s hear the counterargument. What if I just want to have a nice time and not argue with your children? Well, fuck man. Research indicates that early exposure to a wide array of flavors engenders adventurous eaters with multihued palates. So if you find yourself signing the armistice of chicken tenders, you are to blame. (And I do not exclude myself here. I am to blame as well.) But so too are restaurants.
As someone who has written about food for much of the last decade, I’ve been privileged to eat at some of the best restaurants in the world. But my heart hasn’t been completely won over until I ate at this little place near my house in Park Slope, Brooklyn the other day called Camperdown Elm. Named after the oldest tree in Prospect Park, the restaurant is a weirdo mix of comfort and crazy New American that is uniformly delicious. But what I love best about the place is what isn’t on there: a kid’s menu.
It’s ballsy AF to open a new restaurant with no kid’s menu in Park Slope, which is ground zero for New York City breeders. And it was intentional. “I want kids to eat well too.” says Chef Brad Willits, whose father owned a restaurant in Sarasota when he was a kid and taught him to try stuff. “I remember eating escargot when I was five years old. I loved it.”
What you’ll find on the menu at Camperdown Elm are dishes that seem foreign even to adult palates: grilled cucumber, ikura, and smoked buttermilk; squid cracker, mackerel paté, benne seed; gordo rice, black bass, clams, chorizo iberico, olives. And when you roll deep with kids, like I did on a recent Friday night, the waiter approaches and just talks to you about how and what the kids might eat. “We do the squid crackers without the mackerel paté. Also the rice without the bass and clams. We can do the carrots from the lamb with a small portion of the beef.”
Naturally, children eat the fuck out of the fried muffins. They are fried. But they are also a new thing and maybe even a special thing.
My kids — one picky (I blame myself) and one catholic (I pat myself on the back) — ate inky black squid crackers with the brio of a Dorito muncher. “They’re black,” I explained, “because of the squid ink.” “NINJA DORITOS!” yelled my youngest, as he shoved a shit-load into his maw. Whatever, yes, eat them, I thought. My older son contemplated the rice with contempt but then started shoveling it into his mouth like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. The carrots, hot bright orange carrot-on-carrot action, were confited then grilled then glazed. I was informed that they tasted like candy. I snuck bites off their plates.
This approach has much to recommend it. But don’t take it from me. Take it from my kids. They loved it as much as I did and they loved that we could talk about what we were munching. They got “going out” for the first time.
What did Willits get? A new audience and a way to reduce food waste. The Ninja Doritos my sons loved were, in fact, too puny rejects from the adult version of squid crackers. The beef was the end cuts and off cuts of the adult portion. “We’re not losing anything on it,” said Willits, “and the kids eat well.”
Look, I’m a realist. Next time we go out to eat, I know my children will be offered a children’s menu. We’re still a long time away from the abolishment of the children’s menu. But when it is offered — no doubt with the best of intentions with a bit of profit motive thrown in — I’ll send the waiter away regardless. Fuck chicken tenders. Bring on the squid crackers. Let’s heal the world.