It happens time and again when we go to a restaurant with even a hint of child-friendliness to it. From high street family favourites to the finest hotels we've been fortunate enough to set foot in, a waiter hops over and greets my seven-year-old (so far so good), and enthusiastically hands him the kids' menu with a look of expectation that he'll soon be salivating at the prospect of eating his choice from its contents.
The problem is that, not everywhere but all too often, the children's choices are such an unimaginative list that you can predict them before you've set foot through the door – the kind of menu that any parent who eats out with their family will have seen dozens of times before.
It goes something like this: burger and fries/ sausage and mash or chips, spag bol/ macaroni cheese/ fish fingers and then, last but not least the dreaded chicken nuggets. It seems many restaurants' idea of adventurous menus for kids is to rebrand the chicken nuggets and fish fingers 'goujons'.
So what's mine and my son's beef (no horse jokes here thank you...) with all this? These restaurateurs are kindly catering to their younger guests and usually charging them reduced prices. What's not to like?
I get that babies who haven't long been on solids and children of a less adventurous nature (or is it nurture...now that would be a whole other article) might prefer plainer food but assuming that that's it for all of them is patronising.
Yes of course most of them like this stuff sometimes and there's nothing wrong with that. A few of them want it all of the time but couldn't that be because that's what they've become used to when they go out for a meal?
Too many restaurants assume that processed chicken with fries is what kids want so they put it on their menus. Then families order it because that's all there is.
"Let them eat cake" said Marie Antoinette, "let them eat fish fingers", say the chefs of Britain it seems.
A browse of children's menus online quickly demonstrates the sort of menu I'm talking, no make that ranting, about and just how endemic the chicken nugget domination is at all ends of the market; everywhere from small neighbourhood restaurants to large chains.
Take Wetherspoon's, where the kids' main course offering is a choice of cheesy pasta, sausages and mash, spag bol, ham and egg (which we're assured is just like the grown-up's version) or...surprise, surprise...chicken nuggets but hey, not once here but twice, with different side dishes.
Or check out this example - the main children's menu from a super-luxurious five star hotel which is, ironically, renowned for its gastronomy:
For children up to the age of 12
Home Made Soup of the Day
Heinz Baked Beans on Toast
Sandwich, with your choice of filling
cheese & tomato, ham, egg mayonnaise
plain, cheese, mushroom, ham, tomato
Free Range Pork Sausages
mashed potatoes & baked beans
Scottish Minute Steak
green vegetables & chips
Free Range Chicken Breast
carrots, new potatoes & gravy
Mini Fish Fingers
chips, garden peas, & tomato ketchup
Pasta with a choice of:
tomato sauce & parmesan, bolognaise,
or bacon, cream & parmesan
They might be 'Free Range' chicken breasts and sausages but, it's not really much different to the Weatherspoon's offering – well apart from the prices. I've removed them to make it less identifiable to the hotel concerned but can tell you that I've no appetite for paying over £10 for a plate of 'Mini Fish Fingers' (much as we love them done in a sandwich, with a blob of ketchup for a lunch in the school holidays!)
And my son would have little appetite for a plate of them whilst we'd tuck into a beautifully presented, far more interesting meal that's unprocessed and un-breadcrumbed right next to him.
For us as a family, dining out is about two things – it's sociable and it's about sharing the experience of fantastic food. That's quite a challenge to do when my son's having to eat fish bites and we're oohing and aahing at the finest, fresh fish with caper butter sauce (a lovely meal I'd hope the majority of non-vegetarian children would be willing to try and most would like).
So what's the answer...surely it's not so difficult to offer half portions of choices from the main menu? Chefs could always serve unusual sauces separately in a little jug to be 'safe', letting kids choose whether they want to try it and how much.
Provided food is being cooked fresh, you can offer to leave out ingredients that might be troublesome – chilli comes to mind. Granted there are a few pre-portioned items that wouldn't be suited to being split in half (an 8oz steak perhaps) but it wouldn't be so difficult to put a symbol next to those items they can do a kids' portion of.
If establishments do favour a children's menu (and I get that as in part it makes an obvious and useful statement to parents that families are welcome) then why not have a better mix of imaginative and simple options?
Take a leaf out of my son's school dinner menus. His small, state primary serves up a great mix of plainer choices – jacket potatoes and fish fingers are there - but so are spicy wraps, casseroles, lentil bake and chilli con carne, chicken curry and lemon chicken. Something for all tastes and for £2.20 a day proving it's not expensive either.
Some restaurants do get it right with their kids' menus: Pizza Express and Wagamama are notable among chains – with smaller portions of main menu meals, and a decent selection. Wagamama for example has plainer 'cod cubes and rice' through to the more unusual 'katsai curry' and 'mini ramen'.
It's not even just about what's on kids' plates when eating out but also how much: my friend, Lisa's 10-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son don't have the appetite for grown-up portions yet (which then makes them a waste of money as well as food) but find many restaurant kids' meals are now too tiny for them.
Credit here to TGI Fridays and Harvester for addressing this. Neither are exactly Masterchef territory but at least they've realised that portion size is an issue once children get older and that what a toddler wants and needs is different to his ten-year-old big brother. Both have menus for older children and a simpler offering for little ones with smaller portions and price tags.
If you find your children facing a woeful kids' menu and wanting something more, try ordering them an adult starter and a side dish, or even be brave and ask if the chef would be willing to knock up a half portion of something better.
The more of us ask, the more chance there is that this might become the norm and our kids won't face a childhood staring at a plate of nuggets yet again.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of parenting books including Raising Children: The Primary Years, which covers food issues such as dealing with fussy eaters, and blogs with her son to encourage children to try new foods at http://fabfunfoodclub.wordpress.com/
What do you think? Are you and your children bored of paying big prices for small portions of boring food?