Cultural Differences: If You Expect It, You Get It

I came across this video on facebook today, and it reminded me of one of the first cultural differences I noticed as a child visiting the United States. It has to do with “kids menus” in restaurants, and how they are extremely unhealthy.


For most people, the fact that 97% of kid’s menus found in restaurants do not meet nutritional requirements will come as no surprise. Who really thinks that a diet of grilled cheese and chicken nuggets is enough to raise a healthy child? However, the counter argument to that is most people do not eat at restaurants every day. It’s supposed to be a treat, a once in a while type of thing, and so why not have a menu with things that kids most love to eat?

This post is not about the fact that kids menus are unhealthy. This post is about the expectation that children are picky eaters, and how that influences what they will and will not eat.


In Italy, there is no such thing as a kids menu. When you take your children out to a restaurant, they have the same options that everyone else has, you simply ask for a half portion of whatever it is they want. That does not mean that there are no picky eaters amongst Italian children, there most certainly are, but that simply means that they will ask for a plain tomato sauce pasta, or for a clam sauce without parsley or chilli, or a simple grilled piece of meat. There is no “special” menu with things that “only” children like. Because of this, when I went to the States, I was fascinated by the kids menus. At first I’d be intrigued, ooohh I haven’t had a grilled cheese in ages! I’ll have that! By the third time eating out I’d be bored, and ask my Mom to pass me her menu instead.

While of course there is no rule against children ordering from the regular menu, it did bring up many tense moments for me in restaurants. The simple fact was that our servers expected me, as a child, to be a picky eater because of my age. Also, because of my age, they didn’t trust that I knew my own taste and knew what I wanted. At an olive garden I was brought spaghetti that was cut up into pieces for me by a smiling I-bet-I’ll-get-an-extra-tip-for-this server, and I wanted to throw it at him in affront. After insisting at one grill joint that I eat my steak RARE, like it might still be alive kind of rare, I was brought a charred piece of leather that had bypassed brown and fell straight into dark gray. Many times my mother had to assure the server that I would indeed eat the salad, there’s no need to hold the avocado or the walnuts, and no I will not then change my mind and order something else from the menu. They would watch me, astonished, as I ate my mussels straight out of the shell, to the point in which I would snap at them to “just take a picture”. This overwhelming expectation that children are all picky eaters who wont touch anything that is not yellow made me an oddity, and quite annoyed at the whole process of eating out.

This attitude was also shared by my fellow children. The fact that I did not have to be forced to eat vegetables was considered by many to be weird, and strange, to the point in which I would stop admitting it freely. The fact that I would try anything at least once led to many jokes and attempts to feed me ants, or earthworms.

Picky eaters pop up everywhere, even in families with healthy eating habits, and the hypotheses as to why this happens are varied and inconclusive. However, the cultural expectation that most children hate anything healthy and fruit and vegetables have to be a daily battle has, I think, contributed enormously to the problem. One thing mentioned in the video that I fully agree with is that eating habits stick with you. True, your palate does change as you become an adult and true, I like even more things now than I did when I was a child, but that does not mean that bad habits don’t die hard. Taste, like smell, is highly linked to memory, and the flavors of your childhood are often your most treasured. My mother used to feed me grated pears as a baby, and ripe pears are to this day one of my favorite, comforting flavors. Feeding your children healthy things also does not mean never allowing them to have a junky treat ever, but there is nothing wrong with a balance.

Don’t expect your kids to be picky, or they certainly will be. You would be surprised how much influence you expectations can have. Muttering “they’re never going to eat this anyway” as you put broccoli on their plates, or dubiously including fresh fruit into their diets after 8 solid years of artificial fruit juice, or immediately reaching for the junk food when they prod their peas in a tentative way, this has a profound effect on how children will approach certain kinds of food. Children are not picky eaters by default, so there is no need to treat their taste with such skepticism.


  1. says

    I’m always amazed how in France, home to some of the world’s greatest cooking, the children’s menu is crap. Hamburger and fries, chicken nuggets and fries, jambon and fries, pizza. When on earth are they supposed to learn to love all those delicious things on the adult’s menu?

    However, the cultural expectation that most children hate anything healthy and fruit and vegetables have to be a daily battle has, I think, contributed enormously to the problem.

    I want to punch people in the face who will remark on my kids’ love for veggies with astonishment bordering on offence. Really, you fucking grown ups make them feel like they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do and then you wonder when one day they fulfil the expectation and refuse them?

  2. brucegee1962 says

    With my kids, (we’re vegetarian), I remember it as being that it wasn’t so much that they gravitated toward unhealthy food — they were perfectly fine with vegetables and salads as well as mac and cheese. It was more a matter of not liking things with a lot of ingredients. Simplicity was the key. They also weren’t very keen on spices of any sort.

    I read once that your taste buds actually physically change as you get older — food tastes differently to kids than it does to adults. Candy, for instance, tastes better. We didn’t force them to eat anything, but we did frequently remind them of this — “I know you didn’t like this the last time you had it, but that was over a year ago — why don’t you try it again and see if your taste buds have changed?” with the definite assurance that, eventually, they would. Now they’re both into or past teenagerhood, and they’re eating everything we eat. So I guess it worked.

  3. says

    While not counter to your point, my main memory of picky eating was not of expectation, but mockery. Being a picky eater was being mocked endlessly by family members. And then I replicated the mocking with my younger brother. Pretty sure kids at school made fun of my lunch all the time too. (In retrospect, I recognize that what I ate for lunch was not that strange, except for the frozen milk I brought every day.)

  4. anat says

    So many experiences with intercultural cuisine as a child.

    I was raised as the child of a family with Hungarian-Romanian background in Israel. When I was little my mother and my grandmothers cooked mostly Hungarian foods with some adaptations to local ingredients, though over the years my mother expanded to many other cuisines. Kids were expected to eat most foods adults ate, though it was accepted that some kids have personal quirks, and especially kids were expected to prefer less black pepper. (The Hungarian spice cabinet is basically paprika, black pepper, and caraway.) I definitely had all the vegetables the adults in my family had, including onions.

    Then when I was 5 we moved to Italy (followed by another move to the Netherlands). On our fist day in the hotel my mother ordered some salad off the menu for me. I looked at it and couldn’t make myself eat it. Well, I tried, but I couldn’t. It was my first encounter with red cabbage. Salad is supposed to be red and green (OK red, white, and green, hmm, the Hungarian national colors), not purple!

    I did eventually adapt to new foods – red cabbage, mushrooms (never had them earlier) probably others.

    My family’s first experience with a ‘children’s menu’ was in the Netherlands. There was a single item – half a chicken with applesauce and fries. Half of an entire chicken – for a kid! My parents asked for one portion, to be split between my brother and me, but we got half a chicken each. We stuffed ourselves silly and still couldn’t finish. The waitstaff shamed us for wasting our parents’ money. Oh well.

    With my kid we introduced vegetables early. He was fine until the age of 3 or so, then he started returning his lunch untouched. I think the problem was that although the preschool claimed to have a microwave they didn’t bother to heat up the kids’ lunches. That started a long stretch of extreme pickiness, though not the way it is typically described. My kid kept eating familiar vegetables, though was cautious about any new ones. OTOH for many years refused tomato sauce in any form, preferred pesto. In his teens his palate expanded significantly, but is still more narrow than ours.

  5. Jake Harban says

    I’ve never lived anywhere but the United States, and I don’t really remember “kids menus” being a thing other than at fast food style places that we rarely visited anyway. I do remember my mother ordering half a portion of pasta with relatively mild sauce (although I’m not sure who was the recipient of same; a friend maybe?) at an Italian restaurant near where we lived.

    As a child, I was an incredibly picky eater, but not necessarily in the nothing-not-yellow sense; my preferences were very exact but not stereotypical. I don’t recall any adults making comments about my eating habits one way or the other except for two occasions when I was about 8 or so and various adults were surprised that I preferred my coffee black.

    Taste, like smell, is highly linked to memory, and the flavors of your childhood are often your most treasured.

    Now that much is undeniable. To this day, I still have an unwavering fondness for my childhood favorites— baked salmon, bagels with whitefish salad, latkes with sour cream and chocolate rugelach.

  6. anat says

    According to my husband, in Argentina it isn’t salad that children are expected to dislike but soup. According to him, in Argentine culture soup was essentially invented to torture children. One of the things he adapted to in my family was eating soup and enjoying it.

    • says

      My kids love salad much better than I do, especially the older one. At restaurants they often order a salad and then pick my husband’s and my plate for helpings…
      They also love soup, especially lentil soup which according to popular legend kids hate as well.

  7. whirlwitch says

    When I was a child, eating out meant dining at one of two restaurants; one Greek, one Italian. As far as I know neither had a kids menu, but they both did have what became my favourite menu item from the age of 18 months onward: “garlic snails” (or escargot, as the actual menu put it). I’d eat as many snails as I was permitted, then sop up the garlic butter with bread, all the while avoiding the hot dish with flair, then fill in the rest of my meal with morsels from my parents’ plates. My parents knew the horror of a baby with garlic breath, and waiters marveled at the tiny child who piped up “garlic snails!” at order time. I was also fond of consuming the lemon slices from the finger bowls, which apparently caused wincing on the part of nearby diners.

  8. A. Noyd says

    It would be interesting to see a comprehensive comparison of “worst foods” according to kids in various cultures. Going by observation, here in Japan it seems to be any whole beans other than edamame. (And even edamame get scorned when they show up somewhere unexpected, like floating around in soup.) But I don’t know what a Japanese person would say the typical “worst foods” are.

    Also, school lunches are built around not just nutritional balance but also exposing kids to a massive range of foods, which they’re then pressured to eat at least some of even if they hate it. (On the other hand, the variety means there’s more chance that a meal includes things any given kid does like.)

    Many restaurants in Japan offer kiddie meals. It’s usually a more limited selection of whatever the restaurant specializes in, though there are some kiddie meal staples (hamburger steaks, omelets, wieners, breaded fried prawns, fries, etc). But since the Japanese approach to eating involves having a variety of dishes and ingredients in one meal, kiddie meals still have way more range than their American counterparts.

  9. says

    I was a weird child. I loved all the foods kids aren’t supposed to love, like liver, broccoli, turnips and rutabagas, and so on.

    My Mom was largely responsible for that. She was the youngest of 8 children in a poor farm family. When they slaughtered a chicken for dinner, Mom as the youngest would be served last, so she always got stuck with the leftover bits like the neck, liver, hearts, and gizzards. My Grandma would tell her that they saved all the best bits just for her, so she grew to love them, and she passed that onto me.

    I also grew up accustomed to eating wild game. That’s my Dad’s contribution. We lived in a log cabin in the Alaskan woods. Dad was a professional photographer who went on big game hunting trips as the photographer, and the hunters would give him some of the meat, so I grew up with moose burgers and bear steaks, plus smaller game like beavers and foxes. And my brother and I used to fish for trout and salmon, dig for clams and mussels on the beaches, snared rabbits and squirrels for stews, and so on.

    As a teen I always took every opportunity I had to try semi-exotic meats like duck or goose, the buffalo burgers at one local burger joint, ostrich meat at the state fair, or native food like whale meat and eskimo ice cream (walrus blubber with berries in it) at the annual Fur Rendezvous.

    And as an adult I’ve made it a minor hobby of mine to try to eat as many truly exotic meats as I can, so I’ve had possum at a soul food restaurant in Georgia, alligator sausage and frogs legs at Cajun restaurants and crocodile tail steaks at a crocodile farm in Lousiana; emu, kangaroo, and ostrich at an Australian themed restaurant; fried insects, frogs, snakes, rats, and live shrimp in Thailand.

    And since moving to China, I’ve had rat, dog, snake, and turtle, at Hakka minority farm restaurants (you can pick the animals right out of their pens); a whole host of weird shellfish, like sea snails, conch, abalone, and my all-time favorite crustacean, mantis shrimp at the Cantonese seafood restaurants; yak and donkey meat in a largely Muslim city, Xi’An; and wild game like mountain rats (kind of like a beaver), wild goat, and pangolin (sort of like an armadillo), at Miao minority villages on a trip to the mountainous and forested Hunan province.

    Urban legends to the contrary, I still haven’t found cat on any menu here, but I’ll try it if I find it.

    OH, and I came this close to eating roasted guinea pig at a Peruvian restaurant in NYC, but it was the wrong day. I was there on Wednesday, but they only served it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 🙁

    • A. Noyd says

      If you ever try camel meat, be sure it was cooked with a piece of the hump. I’ve never had it, but I was told by a Jordanian woman that it’s incredibly tough without hump fat to soften it.

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