boy picking at broccoli

Why Kids Menus are Hurting The Next Generation

One of my more controversial and talked-about shares in the last year was a series of pictures of our elementary school’s lunch kids menu.

I pointed out some of the trends, some of the downfalls (I’m looking at you sugar), and how the lunches served at our elementary school are the epitome of the kids’ meal.

People were flabbergasted at the low quality of what we feed our children at school.

One person pointed out — rightly so — that parts of the menu were reminiscent of county fair food: deep-fried corn dogs, soft pretzels, walking tacos. These meals, like restaurant kids’ menus, are mostly devoid of nutrients, monochromatic in appearance, and dulling to the taste buds.

If they’re not county fair food, they’re bar food or greasy diner food: the dishes that attract adults with a few too many beers under their belt, getting the munchies at one in the morning.

This is what we feed our children at school, in restaurants, and often at home.

But not everyone is on board with kids eating different food than adults, particularly this palate-dulling, nutrient-less landscape.

chicken nuggets and fries

I know that many people are searching for “healthy meals that are kid-friendly.” There’s a desire in parents to feed their kids healthily.

And yet, these well-meaning parents feel that healthy meals are automatically not kid-friendly. I believe our culture has set us up for failure.

What Is a Kid’s Meal?

Whenever I talk about embarking on the #kidsmealrevolution and inviting all parents to join me, people ask me to start out by defining what I mean. What is a kids’ meal?

I define a kids’ meal as any time we are separating the food that children eat from the food that adults eat. Prime examples include:

  • restaurant kids’ menus
  • school lunch menus
  • convenience food marketed for kids (think dinosaur chicken nuggets and boxed mac and cheese with fun shapes)

Because convenience food is so easy to purchase and we have this sense that somehow kids’ tastebuds and palates are radically different than adults, it’s all too easy for well-meaning parents to slide into the bad habit of short-order cooking.

Paleovalley Meat Sticks

It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein-packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:

100% grass fed beef sticks, pasture raised beef sticks

  • 100% Grass-Fed Beef & 100% Pasture-Raised Turkey
  • Never given antibiotics or hormones
  • Gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free
  • 0 grams of sugar*
  • Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
  • Non-GMO
  • Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!

*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.

These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.

Use this link to get 15% off your order at Paleovalley. Read my Paleovalley Review to learn more!

My friends, any time you are making a completely separate meal for children (or one child) that doesn’t match the rest of the family, you are sabotaging their eating habits in a way that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

It’s definitely time to join the #kidsmealrevolution and banish this way of thinking in our culture. First, let’s look back at how this all happened in the first place.

How Did Kids’ Meals Come to Be? (A History Lesson)

I’m not going to say that historically parents have always done things right. Think of the time when children were to be seen and not heard. I doubt that did much for their self-esteem (although the “Good job!” movement of the 1990s and 2000s didn’t help either).

However, when families more or less had to make all their own food, you better believe Ma Ingalls on the prairie was not short-order cooking for Laura and Mary, and neither were her contemporaries. Food was just too hard to come by. You cooked it, you ate it, or you didn’t. End of story.

It was in the early 1900s that restaurants saw a new market in children. Restaurants were for the upper class, the people who had money to spend to pay other people to cook food for them.

This upper class consisted of plenty of parents. They never brought their children with them out to a restaurant, however, because the food was too expensive to waste on a child.

Restaurant owners began to see this opportunity to convince parents to come out to eat more often if they could bring their children for a lower price.

They created kids’ menus with the direction of doctors to be very nutritious, very bland, and rather inexpensive. Parents felt that they could bring their children with them to a nice meal, not pay too much extra, and be assured that those little babies were being well-nourished.

kids eating from a kids menu

Through the convenience-food era of the 1950s, now, almost everyone’s food could be served inexpensively, but parents had been well-trained that restaurants ought to have kids’ menus. They ought to be different than adults, and they must be very inexpensive.

Restaurants began to shift their menu offerings for children to things that they thought kids would like, and that were definitely in the realm of the convenience food that was taking the nation by storm.

Over the next few decades, the modern kids’ menu in restaurants was created.

Fast food took up the banner in 1979 and 1980, with Burger King and McDonald’s offering their own versions of special kids’ meals; they added the toy and the cute box and the kids’ meal evolution was complete.

Food marketers followed suit by selling cutesy packaged food to parents whose children were falling in love with Happy Meals and thus an entire nation was convinced that kids clearly must eat differently than adults.

RELATED: Learn more about the development of “kid food” here.

The children seemed happy at the table. The parents were happy to avoid power struggles, and everyone’s budget was protected with cheap, processed food. What could possibly go wrong?

Dangers of Kids Eating Separate Food

Unfortunately, it turns out that learning to eat is quite a complicated process that goes on from infancy to adolescence.

It also turns out, much to food marketers’ dismay, that what we put in our bodies actually impacts our short- and long-term health (surprise, surprise). Serving kids separate meals, particularly those devoid of nutrients and variety, causes plenty of problems.

1. The bar has been lowered.

Every time children see that their food is different than adults, they begin to believe it. They begin to believe that they are only expected to eat kid food.

The bar is lowered, and no one is really telling them that eventually, they will grow into adult food. Kids are trained by experience to think that they are quite simply different than adults and that their eating is different than adults.

boy eating a cheeseburger

This absolutely stalls the process of them learning to eat because it doesn’t give them a goalpost. They have no direction in which to go. They are happy sitting amongst the chicken nuggets, pizza, and mac and cheese.

Every time children see that their food is different than adults, they begin to believe it. They begin to believe that they are only expected to eat kid food.

2. Kids’ meals include fewer nutrients.

All of these examples of kids’ meals include hardly any vegetables; lots of highly processed, refined carbohydrates; and processed meats. They lack variety in all areas. There’s very little variety of protein, produce, and healthy fats.

If you believe as I do that food is medicine, and that if we put garbage in, we get garbage out, you’ll quickly see that the rise in type two diabetes, childhood obesity, behavior and attention problems in school, and mental-health issues are likely directly tied to the history of the kids’ meal that I shared with you in the last section.

Stay safe in the sun, with reef-safe sunscreens

Over the last decade+, I’ve personally tested over 120 natural mineral sunscreens, my standards are very high, and nothing I recommend is considered dangerous to coral reefs.

My top recommended tier with only around a dozen winners is where you really should be spending your time. These formulas are held to the highest standard with rigorous government testing.

Ingredients refined to perfection that most of the time you could practically eat and efficacy and performance tested by the Kimball family in the field.

Find all my reviews of safe sunscreen that works here!

If you’re looking for the best reef-safe sunscreen, simply start there. Here’s a list of some of my ultimate favorites.

  • Kōkua Suncare with tons of antioxidants and my kids’ favorite scent and application (use the code KS for 15% off from Kōkua’s online store!)
  • 3rd Rock Essentials rubs in well and reliably prevents burns in our tests (use the code KITCHENSTEW for 20% off!)
  • Raw Elements for so many reasons, including their tinted stick for adult faces (all styles, use KS10 for 10% off!)
  • Maelove, which I call the best “transition” sunscreen when moving away from chemical ‘screens
  • Others that make the top-recommended cut: Badger, ThinkBaby, Adorable Baby, Kabana

If you’re worried about the white cast on your skin from zinc oxide sunscreen, check out my video on how to apply mineral sunscreen correctly to minimize it.

Quite simply, when our children eat a narrow variety of foods, their bodies have a narrow variety of nutrients to use.

They might get some energy, but it might not be the best kind. They might get some growth in their body, but it may not be the direction that serves them well. And they are most certainly missing many nutrients in the rainbow of vegetables that are not on these kids’ menus.

When a child is presented with chicken strips, french fries, and a pile of overcooked broccoli, guess what is left on the plate at the end of the meal?

3. Children’s palates do not get formed well.

We know from a variety of research and also experience of parents that what children eat in the first few years of life allows their palate to form and expand.

Those children who are exposed to a wider variety of flavor profiles are most likely going to be accepting of a wider variety of foods. Again, when children are given such a narrow pathway for their tastebuds to experience those tastebuds are going to be trained to enjoy those foods.

Why do kids like chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and french fries heavy with ketchup? Because we’ve trained them that way.

Yes, our human tastebuds are designed to crave fat, salt, and sugar. That’s because these nutrients (or in the case of sugar, anti-nutrients) were in short supply throughout much of history. Simply because they are a dollar a dozen now does not mean it’s good for our children to just eat what feels good to them.

Think about it this way: if we didn’t say no, our kids would run into the road, stay up all night, and never do their homework. We have to apply the same methods of discipline to the process of learning to eat. We can’t just give them what they like.

Paleovalley Meat Sticks

It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein-packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:

100% grass fed beef sticks, pasture raised beef sticks

  • 100% Grass-Fed Beef & 100% Pasture-Raised Turkey
  • Never given antibiotics or hormones
  • Gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free
  • 0 grams of sugar*
  • Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
  • Non-GMO
  • Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!

*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.

These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.

Use this link to get 15% off your order at Paleovalley. Read my Paleovalley Review to learn more!

4. Kids’ meals don’t allow for growth.

Because kids’ meals are so radically different from what the adults around the children are eating, there’s not an easy path to shift from chicken nuggets to grilled chicken kebabs with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers. It’s too big of a leap.

Our kids need to hear a growth mindset and growth language. They need to be able to see the adult food — see that it is at least somewhat similar to what they are eating — and hear phrases like:

  • It’s okay if you don’t like this yet.
  • Your taste buds are still growing.
  • Perhaps you’ll enjoy this spicier sauce when you’re older.

When kids are happily eating their pizza while the adults are having a white bean salad with sauteed mushrooms and fresh celery, there is just no comparison.

The kids have no reason to be interested in what the adults are eating, and no reason to assume that they will ever figure out how to eat those foods.

girls eating pizza

5. Kids’ meals simply are not necessary.

I firmly believe that children can eat more or less what adults eat.

We’ll talk in the next section about what “kid food” should really look like if you have “kid food” different than adult food at all, but the bottom line is that the only reason we have kids’ meals is the cultural cry of “quick, easy and cheap.”

Want to raise kids whose health is quick, easy, and cheap? By all means, serve them kids meals.

If you want to raise healthy, independent adults who can make their way in the world, you need to toss kids’ meals to the side and say that this is not necessary for my family. I can do better.

What Should (Picky) Kids Eat?

I understand that kids do have more tastebuds than adults.

Sometimes children, particularly those with sensory processing difficulties, really do taste things in a more intense way than adults. So it’s okay if what the children are eating is slightly different than the adults.

However, it never needs to be a separate meal. No parent ever needs to exhaust themselves short-order cooking.

I hope to see the day when all the food marketers making dinosaur chicken nuggets and personal cheese pizzas are convinced by our cultural behavior that they need to shift to making kids’ meals differently.

Here’s what I believe a kids’ meal should look like if the child’s food is any different than the adult’s.

1. Kids’ food might be less intense.

Because kids do have more tastebuds, sometimes kids need less spicy or less seasoned food.

That means the main body of the meal — the meat, the vegetables, the potatoes — is all the same on the child’s plate and the adult’s plate. But perhaps the child has no sauce, perhaps the adult adds hot sauce at the table.

Instant Pot BBQ

Perhaps there are two versions of chili, a less spicy and a spicier. Perhaps you mix up vegetables with your favorite seasoning blend using half as much as you’d normally use, add half to one roasting pan, and then season the rest as the adults would enjoy it. Different roasting pans for kids and adults, but overall the food looks the same.

It gives the kids a very clear path from what they’re eating now to what they will eat as adults.

2. Kids’ meals should always be smaller portions.

If I could rewrite a restaurant kids’ menu to serve kids and help them learn to eat, it would include things that are on the main menu, probably a smaller variety so that kids aren’t overwhelmed with too many choices; and definitely smaller portions, resulting in a lower cost. This way, everyone wins.

Stay safe in the sun, with reef-safe sunscreens

Over the last decade+, I’ve personally tested over 120 natural mineral sunscreens, my standards are very high, and nothing I recommend is considered dangerous to coral reefs.

My top recommended tier with only around a dozen winners is where you really should be spending your time. These formulas are held to the highest standard with rigorous government testing.

Ingredients refined to perfection that most of the time you could practically eat and efficacy and performance tested by the Kimball family in the field.

Find all my reviews of safe sunscreen that works here!

If you’re looking for the best reef-safe sunscreen, simply start there. Here’s a list of some of my ultimate favorites.

  • Kōkua Suncare with tons of antioxidants and my kids’ favorite scent and application (use the code KS for 15% off from Kōkua’s online store!)
  • 3rd Rock Essentials rubs in well and reliably prevents burns in our tests (use the code KITCHENSTEW for 20% off!)
  • Raw Elements for so many reasons, including their tinted stick for adult faces (all styles, use KS10 for 10% off!)
  • Maelove, which I call the best “transition” sunscreen when moving away from chemical ‘screens
  • Others that make the top-recommended cut: Badger, ThinkBaby, Adorable Baby, Kabana

If you’re worried about the white cast on your skin from zinc oxide sunscreen, check out my video on how to apply mineral sunscreen correctly to minimize it.

The children get to make a choice. Their choices have the same nutrients as the adults (which depending on the restaurant you choose may or may not be very robust), and they are served a portion that won’t overwhelm them.

In general, kids should be eating less than adults. Sometimes when my boys are clearly growing, they eat as much as me or my husband to be sure. But this is one way in which a child’s meal can be different than an adult’s. Smaller portions, plain and simple.

3. Kids may need their food deconstructed.

Lots of kids have preferences, and whether these are trained by the convenience food kids’ meal culture or not, I can’t be sure. But it’s clear that some kids really struggle if their food is touching or mixed together.

Can we still serve these preferences without short-order cooking? Absolutely.

If you’re serving a meal where everything is usually mixed together, allow the child to serve themselves the separate parts. The meal is the same for the whole family, but the child gets to deconstruct their meal.

burrito bowl

Some meals make this easy, like burrito bowls or stir-fry. Some meals are more challenging, like a soup or a casserole. But we can get creative and figure out how to deconstruct most meals, or at least don’t serve the non-deconstructable meals day after day after day.

Give the kids a chance to exercise their preferences. You can learn a lot more about kids’ eating styles from Mary over at Just Take a Bite. Take her quiz here to learn about how your kids eat and how you can serve all their preferences without short-order cooking.

How we serve the food can really have a big impact on whether or not a kid will eat it.

Are There Healthy Meals That Are Kid-Friendly?

For those of you searching about the Internet for healthy meals that are kid-friendly, think of it this way: You simply need to look for recipes you think you would like that aren’t that complicated — cooked meats, cooked vegetables, anything that can be deconstructed.

RELATED: 10 ways to encourage kids to eat more veggies!

In my book, the most kid-friendly meal is one where a child participates in its creation.

We know that when kids are more involved with food, they are more likely to eat it.

So there you have it. Kid-friendly cooking is a meal in which children are involved.

Paleovalley Meat Sticks

It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein-packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:

100% grass fed beef sticks, pasture raised beef sticks

  • 100% Grass-Fed Beef & 100% Pasture-Raised Turkey
  • Never given antibiotics or hormones
  • Gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free
  • 0 grams of sugar*
  • Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
  • Non-GMO
  • Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!

*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.

These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.

Use this link to get 15% off your order at Paleovalley. Read my Paleovalley Review to learn more!

It doesn’t take a special recipe to feed kids well. However, sometimes it does take a recipe of some sort to get dinner on the table. Here are some of our favorite recipes that both kids and adults in my family enjoy:

What if your kids could make a whole meal by themselves?

It’s totally possible for even the youngest children, once they learn the skills in the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse!

WATCH 5-YEAR-OLD MAKE DINNER

Time to Redefine a Kids’ Meal as One a Child Cooks

If we can redefine a kids’ meal as one that a child has cooked, we can reverse all of the dangers of kids eating separate food.

1. Kids’ involvement raises the bar.

It tells kids that they are growing into adults, that they have the potential to do authentic tasks.

2. When kids cook, they eat better.

This will increase the nutrients and keep them out of the awful stats of obesity, diabetes, and school inattention.

The very act of learning to cook is mental-health protective, as is eating together as a family. Prioritize both, and you will be prioritizing your children’s mental health.

kid eating vegetables

3. Kid’s palates will expand.

When kids cook they are exposed to the sights, smells, and sounds of many different foods. This will help to expand their palate from a young age into adolescence and allow them to be more adventurous eaters.

4. The path to adult food is clear.

When kids’ meals don’t look any different than adults other than a few minor tweaks, it’s very easy for kids to see the path to be able to grow into an adult eater.  And of course, when they’re involved, they have the capacity to then feed themselves and their friends and family when they leave your house.

kid stirring mac and cheese

5. Teaching kids to cook is so necessary.

I firmly believe that teaching kids to cook is one of the most necessary things parents can do. It is the absolute reverse of the unnecessary aspect of feeding kids separate meals.

The bottom line is this: stop believing that your kids need to eat different food. Don’t let the food marketers get their claws into you with their siren song of cheap, easy, quick. Push back against the culture with your own song:

“My children are capable. My children are learning to eat. My children will become healthy, independent adults, and everything we do is seeking that goal. My children will learn to cook.”

That is my dream for you, my friends. And I’m honored that you are joining me on this #kidsmealrevolution to redefine a kids’ meal as one that a child has cooked.

And hey, if they want to cut their own homemade chicken nuggets into dinosaur shapes, by all means, let them be creative.

YES! TEACH MY KIDS TO COOK!

The problems with kid food

What You Should Do Next:

1. Subscribe to The Healthy Parenting Connector

Katie Kimball

I interview experts about kids’ health every week – stay in the loop with a quick Saturday morning email:

 

 

2. Try a Free Preview of my Cooking Class for Kids

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3. Enroll in the Online Cooking Course for Kids:

Enroll now in the Wall Street Journal’s #1 recommended online cooking class for kids (also rated 5 stars on Facebook). See what fits your family best HERE.

About Katie Kimball

Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.

Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.

A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.

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