It was the last weekend in January and my eldest daughter's 13th birthday. We celebrated with a 'family day' that mostly involved me making her favourite meals followed by birthday cake with grandparents. For a transition into adolescence it was pretty tame. Actually it was worse than that - it was a very lame celebration.
My husband and I had both been working flat out in the weeks running up to it, but, as our deadlines were met and the workload subsided, we felt horribly bad about it all. So bad in fact that we decided to book lunch at a very exclusive local fish restaurant as a belated celebration.
With our guilt-ridden hearts heaved into our wallets we handed our coats to the immaculately dressed waitress who took us to our seats. We were painfully aware that we weren't going to get off lightly and that the Kid's Menu was unlikely to get a look in.
Our eldest, now 17, is a rampantly ravenous carnivore who eats like a caveman on steroids when only slightly peckish. He would be ordering as much as he could feasibly get away with within the constraints of his loose interpretation of 'manners'. Sure enough, despite the speciality being fish dishes, he opted for a slow cooked ox cheek concoction and a couple of mountainous side dishes.
The birthday girl went for something she wouldn't get at home (still on the full-priced adult menu) - braised duck, parsnip mash and red cabbage. We don't eat much duck at home because it's not the most economical choice for feeding a big family. Our third born has nauseatingly sophisticated tastes for a 10 year old. He opted, despite the urgent persuasions of my husband and his wallet, for pan fried local huss with mussels and promised - on pain of missing pudding - to eat the lot, and was true to his word.
We turned, hope of a reasonable bill evaporating from our hearts, to our youngest. She had a children's menu, complete with cryptic word search in front of her. I clasped what little hope was left and put on my most enthusiastic tones. I knew there was one way to persuade her and it started by working backwards. If I was going to get her to commit to the kid's menu I needed to sell in the pudding.
This was easy. One of the options was a 'gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream' and therefore the easiest sell I have ever had to make. The starter we went for was chopped veg and dips - again, pretty easy as she was the only one having a starter and therefore felt vastly superior to the rest of us. The main course was likely to be the biggest stumbling block and, sure enough, my heart sank.
We were back in the land of fish fingers (albeit hand crafted fish 'thumbs') and chips, pizza, sausages, chicken goujons and a complete famine when it came to anything resembling a vegetable. It made me wonder why, when feeding these growing bodies, we decide that they are unlikely to eat anything too adventurous so we only supply what we assume they will eat. That option is invariably bland, generally processed and almost always void of any real nutritional value. These little people rely even more heavily than their parents on real and varied nutrition and their attitudes to food, both in terms of adventurous tasting and experience - as well as an occasion for social interaction - are forming with every mouthful. This is overwhelmingly the case in the event of a celebratory meal.
Adults get to try something new, unusual or otherwise difficult to produce at home; children get fobbed off with reheated freezer debris. I think encouraging interests in new food is a good thing but there aren't many restaurants that do this for children. Perhaps children aren't interested in, or tempted by, the food on the adult menu but isn't this partly because they don't get an opportunity to try it?
Potentially there are alternatives to the tedious predictability of the Kid's Menu. Some places will do half size adult portions, or an adult starter as a kid's meal. You could get a spare plate for a tapas-style selection of the adult meals so children are in on the experience and out of the processed food loop. The act of sharing in itself is unifying and the overall point of a communal meal after all.
There is a further bonus to these options too: it generally works out cheaper. Plus, it can even provoke a couple of monosyllabic teenagers into conversation, and that on its own, is a triumph that makes any restaurant bill worthwhile.