Recently I was talking to my mom about kids’ menus. I was (am) angry that they existed, because I thought (think) that catering to kids’ dumb preferences for boring, processed food both creates and reinforces such preferences, turning kids into Outback Steakhouse-seeking, Campbell’s soup-heating, Hard Rock Cafe-touring adults. “I never ate from a kids menu, did I?” I asked her confidently, sure I knew the answer already.
“Of course you did,” she responded, without even stopping to think. “You pretty much lived on bean and cheese burritos whenever we went to Mexican restaurants.”
Because I can’t conceive of making that choice now, I can’t conceive of having been the person who ever would have made that choice. I remember the parts of my childhood where I ate fish eyes on a dare, brought cream cheese and caviar sandwiches to preschool, and was the only kid in my group of friends to have tried sushi. I remember those things because those things fit with my narrative: that of the adventurous kid, becoming an adventurous eating evangelist.
Kids’ menus fit nowhere in that narrative. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to them. When I’m sitting at a restaurant with an otherwise beautiful varied menu that chooses to offer children chicken fingers or a grilled cheese sandwich, I think, what is the message we’re sending here? Is it really that we’re catering to an inherently picky demographic whose tastebuds biologically prefer blandness? Or are we creating a false picky demographic by making that assumption?
This article argues that American children’s bland tastes were artificially created by an 1894 book called ‘The Care and Feeding of Children’, which was heavily referenced when kids’ menus came into existence during prohibition. The book claimed that fresh fruit, pastries, salty meats, lemonade, and other ‘fancy’ foods were to be reserved for adults. Prior to the publication of this book, which came as part of a larger scientific movement and era promoting different nutritional requirements for children, kids ate what adults ate.
But you can't make the case that kids’ bland preferences aren’t wholly manufactured out of thin air. Children do have more tastebuds than adults (because adults' tastebuds eventually stop regenerating) and so food tastes stronger to them. Basically, they’re supertasters. (Parenthetically, I know a self-proclaimed supertaster and she hates almost all 'healthy' food, and especially all vegetables.) Children also are programmed, as toddlers, to crave fat and sugar to gain energy and to avoid bitterness, which could have signaled poison back in ancient times when they were running around shoving unfamiliar plants from the forest into their mouths.
Why, then, do some children eat kimchi and borscht and carrots and peppers, while others subsist on foods marketed specifically for them, like chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes and fruit roll-ups? I’m pulling the lens back from the United States here: remember that set of photos that circulated early last year that showed what school lunches were like around the world? Here it is. Take a look. I can’t argue that these kids aren’t eating differently from their parents, as I’m not an expert on each type of cuisine pictured, but I can certainly argue that almost none of the international foods pictured in this set are as bland or texturally unchallenging as the American food pictured. Korea’s unsurprisingly, prominently features kimchi. That, plus Finland’s pickled beet and carrot salads and Greece’s vinegared dolmas, prove that acidity is not a dealbreaker for young palates, as the U.S. so often assumes it is by cutting out certain salad dressings or forgoing sharp sauces. Brazil’s bed of fresh arugula, Spain’s cut fresh peppers, and Ukraine’s cabbage show that raw veggies aren’t a no-go either, and that veggies don’t have to be boiled to mush to be enjoyed by children. And I mean, Ukraine features borscht. What could be more stereotypically offensive to most American children than a cold mushy soup made out of beets? What are other countries doing differently?
My guess (and this needs more research to substantiate) is that most other cultures don’t conceive of children’s palates and needs as a separate entity than the adults’; they simply, as in pre-1890’s America - make kids eat what the adults eat. This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t universally more particularly about what they are willing to try. I mean, the phrase ‘an acquired taste’ isn’t just something that appeared, baseless, out of thin air. Adventurousness seems not ingrained but earned, either through necessity (“there’s nothing else to eat!”) or a certain maturity (“this is going to be at least an interesting/broadening experience, and maybe I’ll even like it!”).
The former is foisted upon children by parents who take the approach of feeding their children what they themselves are eating: no other option. If the children don’t like it, the children go hungry. Eventually, they learn.
The latter comes - only sometimes - with age. I’d argue that children who are forced to experience the former are more likely to become the types of adults who reach the latter. While I don’t know anyone who sprang from the womb inherently frightened of ‘weird’ food like duck fetuses or pig’s blood, I also don’t know anyone who has overcome society’s judgments enough to try those things, preconceived notions firmly inculcated, without a little bit of gritting teeth and encouraging self-talk. Sometimes gritting teeth and encouraging self-talk is necessary to reach a point where a new food is fully appreciated and integrated into a diet! Personally, I had to pry apart a duck fetus with a fork until it didn’t resemble a bird anymore before I could eat balut for the first time; I didn’t know that the usual method involves scooping it out with a spoon, eyes averted or shut. I had to get over the fact that pig’s blood tasted like swallowing a mouthful of saliva after getting punched. Now I eat both things happily, because I appreciate the mingling of the flavors they often accompany: pate and Vietnamese coriander and salt and lime; iron and oxtail and lemongrass.
I feel my life would be less rich if not for these experiences, and I worry that American kids are being set up for a life of predictability when they're not expected to cultivate an attitude of openness and curiosity towards food. I realize how pretentious this sounds, but it doesn't change how I feel.