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.