Children's menus have turned me into a conspiracy theorist. Never one to fall for such nonsense, I'm deeply uncomfortable about this. And yet, what else should a parent think?
The Weathervane sent me over this edge to JFK land. I went to the restaurant with an older friend, thinking this would be a slightly grown-up meal but not so fancy that my children would be horridly out of place. And indeed, I felt reassured when the children were seated with gold cord-wrapped crayons and their own menus.
Until I read those menus, that is. Then it hit me: Restaurants are playing this weird game of pretending they want my kids to eat there, while in reality, they're trying to kill them.
French fries. Grilled cheese or fried chicken nuggets. No fruit within a mile, and no vegetables save oiled potatoes til the next county. For variety, how about pasta with butter and cheese? And please, let us include a Coke in that $2.95 deal--and some ice cream to finish them off?
We're not talking here about some short-order cook who knows little more than grilled cheese. These are restaurants with chefs, for crying out loud. And this is the best a chef can do?
When we went to Raleigh's Nofo recently, a restaurant with entrees in the double digits, we were charged $5.95 for a measly grilled cheese and chips for my son, who was told about the kids menu before we could hide it from him. That thriller came off a depressing menu that included pb&j and pasta with marinara sauce. (We could, for a price, substitute a salad for the chips.) By contrast, my daughter, who didn't realize those were the child choices, had a quesadilla "stack" off the appetizer menu, which provided her with avocado, black beans and shrimp, for virtually the same price as that grilled cheese. Why, pray tell, couldn't that be on the kids' menu? After all, even some fast-food joints, usually high on my hit list, offer fruit these days. Under pressure, admittedly, but if that's where you take your kids, at least there's some redeeming quality.
I really lost it when we went to a new Chinese restaurant in town and, again, initially felt pleased to be handed a children's menu--until we read the meal deal. Soda, fried rice, french fries and cake? Good grief.
I have conflicting views of how restaurants should face the growing concerns about obesity, but that conflict comes only in regard to adult food. When I go out, it's for a special occasion--even if that's just to get out of my house after a fabulous but wearying week of motherhood. Thus I don't expect food that's cooked as I do at home. A few especially healthful options might be nice, but after all, fat carries flavor, as every chef knows, and restaurant kitchens take full advantage of that fact.
For kids, though, there's no question: Restaurants have a duty to offer children tasty but nutritious food. Ditch the fried food, and if the chef is too dull to skip the grilled cheese, at least make it with wheat bread and real Cheddar. (But really, if your children's lives are so deprived that they can't get a decent grilled cheese at home, then I respectfully suggest you entirely overhaul your life.)
What to do? First off, complain. I'm generally meek in restaurants, saying little of what I think, but it's time for an uprising. I'm going to make it clear to restaurants from which I should be able to expect more that I do, in fact, expect considerably more. If you don't want to wholly ruin your meal, get the manager or owner's e-mail and tell them in writing. Or just leave a copy of this column behind as your calling card.
If that fails, as I frankly expect it to, Plan B says I dispense with any guilt about bringing in food for my children. If the chef can't even pretend to want to work for my money, then I can't pretend to care how they feel upon my entering with a lunch bag of fruit and a decent sandwich. To show my Southern manners, I'll still be polite and order a glass of milk (but you better have something other than whole milk on hand). And if fruit's on the menu, I might order that--but please, teach those prep cooks how to sniff out a ripe melon--no 2-year-old should need vampire fangs to break through a cantaloupe chunk.
Better yet, where can I go that offers a decent option? For my money, down-home, Southern-food havens make the most sense. Any place that offers a kids' veggie plate, especially one where mac-and-cheese is considered a vegetable, gets my undying support. The veggies taste good to kids, and the mac-and-cheese is just one small bowl on a plate of three or four, so they get filled up on green beans, sweet potatoes and apples, along with pasta. It may not be the most healthful meal they'll ever eat, but it's a darn sight better than most. (When this is what we want, we head to Bon's in Carrboro, or the Farmers' Market Restaurant at the State Farmers' Market in Raleigh. Just ask them to hold the hushpuppies and biscuits til the veggies get eaten.)
I also come to praise Maple View Farms for their child-size ice cream. I was stunned when, after a dreary morning of clothes shopping for two fast-growing children, we stopped at Southpoint mall's Marble Slab Creamery and got a child's cup of ice cream that held more than I could've eaten. At Maple View, on the other hand, you pay $1 for a scoop that's just right for little tummies--not to mention a grassy area complete with hay bale where the tykes can run that sugar out of town.
Cook's notes: Replicating a Southern vegetable plate at home doesn't take much time, could easily provide you with leftovers, and might get your kids eating vegetables they won't otherwise touch. By far the best choices for your food will be vegetables fresh off the farmers' trucks, but it isn't a sin to use good-quality frozen vegetables when what you want isn't available. I keep frozen corn, peas and green beans on hand and have yet to hear my 5-year-old complain, especially when it comes to long-cooked green beans. The macaroni and cheese recipe here is adapted from the 1997 Joy of Cooking and makes my ideal, creamy mac-and-cheese. I often use pasteurized eggs in it to avoid worry over whether I've thoroughly cooked the eggs. The sweet potato souffle is a significantly less rich and sweet version of the Southern standard, but you may want to cut even more butter from it; try increasing the half-and-half if so to keep it moist.
Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course, or 8 to 10 as a side dish
2 cups (8 ounces) elbow macaroni or 8 ounces rotini
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper, or 2 shakes of Tabasco, or to taste
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk, or 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
12 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
Cook macaroni in a large pot of salted water until just tender, according to package directions. Drain and return to the pot; stir in butter until melted or nearly so. In a medium bowl, dissolve mustard in 1 teaspoon water; beat in eggs, salt, and pepper or Tabasco until frothy. Add to macaroni along with evaporated milk or half-and-half and cheese. Set the pot over very low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until you see the first bubble of a simmer, about 5 to 10 minutes. It should thicken noticeably. Increase the heat slightly if the sauce is still soupy after 5 minutes, but watch it very carefully. Do not overheat (above 170 degrees), or the sauce will curdle. Serve immediately. If you're not quite ready to serve, remove the pot from the heat, cover the surface with plastic wrap, cover the pot, and let stand at room temperature. Keep in mind as you're cooking the sauce that the pasta will absorb much of it if the finished dish stands very long, so avoid getting it too thick.
Southern Green Beans
You don't need exact proportions for this recipe. Use either fresh green beans that have been topped and tailed and cut into about 1-inch lengths, or use frozen, cut green beans. Place in a medium saucepan with chicken stock or water and a healthy dash of lemon juice to come up about halfway over the beans, plus about 2 teaspoons sugar for a pound of beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until beans are soft--20 to 30 minutes for frozen beans, up to 2 hours for fresh. Keep an eye on the liquid--you don't want lots left in the pan at the end of cooking, but nor do you want the pan to cook dry. Taste and adjust the sugar or lemon juice as needed before serving.
Sweet Potato Souffle
Serves 4 to 6
4 large sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks and boiled until tender
3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons half-and-half or milk
3 tablespoons (packed) dark brown sugar (light brown sugar is also OK)
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons (packed) dark or light brown sugar
1/2 cup crushed corn flakes
1/2 cup sliced almonds or chopped pecans
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 2-quart or similar size baking dish.
In a large bowl, mash sweet potatoes while still hot, preferably by putting them through a ricer. Stir in butter until melted, then half-and-half. Stir in sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. Lightly beat in eggs. Turn into baking dish and smooth top.
If using topping, mix all the ingredients together, then sprinkle over sweet potatoes. Bake for 30 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are heated through and topping is a dark golden brown.