All that was left of Julia Washington’s seared-scallop entree were the baby artichokes. The 10-year-old speared one with a fork, eyeing it with curiosity and contempt.
“I don’t know about new things. I don’t know how they taste,” the fifth-grader from Upper Marlboro said at the restaurant Equinox. “It looks like a mushroom. I don’t like mushrooms.”
Julia is a typical child. She loves mac and cheese, fried shrimp, ice cream. But she couldn’t order from the kids’ menu that night, because Equinox has no kids’ menu. The restaurant’s chef, Todd Gray, does not believe in kid food.
“With the right encouragement, kids will eat anything,” Gray said.
Most restaurants don’t give children many choices: chicken fingers. Tater tots. Or bland, cheese-laden pizza, accompanied by a cup of limp fruit salad. And some parents are getting tired of it.
“The idea that there is different food for children drives me nuts,” said Lynn Fredericks, founder of Family Cook Productions, an organization that teaches healthful family eating. She recently launched the Kids Food Reboot, a campaign to get restaurants to adapt their kids’ menus to rely less on frozen french fries and other beige fried foods and more on healthful, fresh and — most important — interesting choices for young diners. Given the chance to eat, say, spaghetti squash or broccoli rabe, children will rise to the occasion, Fredericks says.
“Children will eat other foods. They will,” she said. “It’s just about how you present it.”
She has enlisted several chefs across the country — among them such TV personalities as Mary Sue Milliken of “Top Chef Masters” and Arlington’s David Guas of the Travel Channel’s “American Grilled” — to adapt dishes on their regular menus to be more suitable in portion size, spice level and nutritional content for kids. She also asks them to add a “touch of whimsy” in the form of, for example, a sesame-seed face on a hard-cooked egg or a rainbow of vegetables with cauliflower clouds: Eating vegetables, she says, should be just as much fun as eating chicken nuggets. It’s starting out small, but Fredericks and the chefs involved plan to recruit others to the cause.
“To have a hamburger is not bad. To have mac and cheese is not bad,” Fredericks said. “The problem, inherently, is not what each of those things is. It’s perpetuating the separateness of what kids eat.”
Kids’ menus began in the era of Prohibition, when restaurants were eager to recoup lost liquor revenue by tapping a new demographic. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York was among the first to have one, and, like other kids’ menus it inspired, it was laden with healthful but bland foods. By the 1970s, when processed foods took hold, kids’ menus of fried chicken and french fries, now ubiquitous, began their ascent — at least in the United States. In much of the rest of the world, kids eat the same food as adults.
“Kids are infamous for loving ketchup and pasta and other foods that they will gravitate towards if you allow them to,” said Guas, chef -owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington. “You have to remember to be creative when preparing foods for kids, or else you’ll lose their interest.”
He knows: Like the other chefs who are helping launch this campaign, Guas is a parent. Although his two sons might possess more sophisticated palates than the average child’s, they still have their likes and dislikes.
For Bayou Bakery’s “little yat’s” menu, he has adapted his turkey-meatball dish into a smaller portion served atop spaghetti squash. Other options include turkey sandwiches, a veggie-laden mac and cheese of the day and, yes, a hot dog.
At the more upscale Equinox, Gray has long offered half- portions of kid-friendly dishes such as house-made pappardelle pasta or roast chicken. When dealing with a child diner, servers can rattle off kid-friendly options — like the grilled polenta over fall ratatouille that he created for the Kids Food Reboot. But often, Gray will improvise something based on what the child requests.
“Sometimes it makes us a little crazy, because they start putting steak on top of noodles. We never say no,” he said. “The pickiest stuff is that they don’t want stuff ‘touching.’ ” He also tempers the spice level: “You don’t want to blow some child over with tons of garlic and rosemary. You’ll find that kids don’t want scallions and mint put on fish. I like to serve everything on the side, just to be safe.”
Not all children are afraid to eat their vegetables. Recently, food-oriented Web sites have been inspired by the idea of children eating like adults and have sent them to fancy restaurants to capture their viral-video-ready reactions. They don’t always love what they’re served. The Bold Italic, a San Francisco online magazine, sent a child to the renowned French Laundry (“It looks really not good” was a 4-year-old girl’s assessment of caviar), and the New York Times recently made a video of second-graders reviewing the $220 seven-course tasting menu at Daniel. After they complained about Daniel’s squash ravioli (“This looks like soap”), chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud told the kids, “Next time, we’ll do macaroni and cheese,” and they all cheered.
The restaurants selected by the Kids Food Reboot may not be as pricey, but because they attract an upscale, urban clientele, they illustrate one of the program’s flaws. Parents who are bringing their children to restaurants like Equinox are likely to be middle- or upper-class, which statistically makes them likelier to be feeding their children a healthful variety of foods to begin with.
Fredericks says the idea is that these chefs will influence their peers, and that the Kids Food Reboot will trickle down to other types of restaurants. She hopes to begin working with bigger chains, such as Denny’s, and she points to other chains, including Panera Bread and Silver Diner, that have independently revamped their kids’ menus. But working with fast-food giants or school cafeterias, where many children eat when they’re not at home, is a different battle, she says.
The concept has a long way to go, says Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the Six O’Clock Scramble, a healthful-meal-planning Web site for families.
“When you go to a Mexican restaurant or a Greek restaurant, it’s still the same options” of chicken fingers and grilled cheese, said Goldfarb. “As a parent, why don’t we just ask if the restaurants would make half-portions of the entrees at a lower price? I think that’s a great solution.”
Still, when parents of picky eaters know that chicken fingers are an option, sometimes it’s just easier to give in than to pray that a tantrum doesn’t erupt.
“If we’re in a restaurant that has a traditional children’s menu, I let [my son] order from it. It seems counterproductive to argue with that. He wants it; he will eat it,” said Debbie Koenig, author of “Parents Need to Eat Too” and mom to a picky eater. “If we have to bargain with him to order something off of the adult menu, odds are it will go untouched.”
The Kids Food Reboot is just as much about training parents as it is about kids’ palates, says Fredericks.
“I think parents get caught up in the idea of ‘My kid’s going to starve if he doesn’t have dinner!’ ” Koenig said. “They order what’s reassuring.”
At Equinox, a group of kids invited to dinner by The Washington Post chose to order grown-up foods, even though the kitchen gave them the option of a hamburger.
“The grown-up [food] tastes way better, and I wanted to feel like a grown-up,” said 8-year-old Trinity Washington, who ordered tilefish with a bean ragout and chanterelle mushrooms — and didn’t touch the last two components of the dish.
Six-year-old Ella Clarke chose chestnut soup as an appetizer, and her 3-year-old brother, Owen, departed from his usual favorite (“meatballs and pasta and cheese and sauce,” he said) for a simple piece of fish. An appetizer of risotto fritters was perplexing to the kids, but after a few bites, it became a hit.
“I never tasted tastes like that,” said 7-year-old Zoe Raley, playing with the salt and pepper shakers.
When a side of truffled macaroni and cheese arrived, the kids made a beeline for it. Even though it offered a familiar taste, many of the young diners decided that their grown-up entrees were better.
“It’s not better than Grandma’s mac and cheese,” said Trinity’s sister, Julia, who later tried her artichokes and declared that they tasted “okay,” and kind of like hummus.
“Owen, what did you like the best?” asked his mom, Sara Clarke. Owen pointed to the bread and butter.
The key to getting kids to eat grown-up food, says Gray, is to let them have agency over their meals, and to talk to them as though they are adults. He came out to greet his guests at the end of the meal and asked them what they liked.
Brianna Santangelo, 7, had methodically separated her Brussels sprouts — the kid equivalent of toxic waste — from her steak, so the two ingredients wouldn’t touch. But once she tasted the vegetable, she came around.
“I usually don’t like Brussels sprouts, but I really liked yours,” Brianna said.
Gray smiled. “We’re going to be just fine together, then.”
Equinox, 818 Connecticut Ave., NW. Waiters offer kids a few tried-and-true options, like fresh pasta or a small steak, and allow them to request what they would like. The restaurant’s featured dish for the Kids’ Food Reboot is a grilled polenta with ratatouille.
Bayou Bakery, 1515 N. Courthouse Rd., Arlington. David Guas’s New Oreleans-themed restaurant lightens up the spice for kids. While he offers a hot dog, there are more sophisticated options, like his Kids Food Reboot dish of turkey meatballs and spaghetti squash.
Brasserie Beck, 1101 K St. NW. Picky kids can have pasta or burgers, but chef Robert Wiedmaier’s Kids Food Reboot dish is a grilled salmon with whipped potatoes.
Lebanese Taverna, multiple locations. Kids get smaller versions of the Mediterranean restaurant’s adult dishes, such as chicken shawarma and kibbeh. They’re all served with hummus, rice, celery and carrots. A kid’s meal is $6.50.
Passionfish, 11960, Democracy Drive, Reston. The “beginner sushi roll” — it has cooked crab meat and veggies — is a good way to introduce kids to the real thing. All items on the kids’ menu are $6.
Rosa Mexicano, multiple locations. Yes, there are chicken fingers on this “Young Amigos” menu, but there’s also a miniature budin de pollo con vegetables — whole wheat tortillas layered with chicken, veggies, tomato sauce and queso fresco ($8.50)
Dino’s Grotto, 1914 Ninth St. NW. Kids’ dishes, $3 to $6, include am antipasti portion of calamari, and a make-your-own pasta as simple as fusili with butter or as elaborate as boar pappardelle, a choice on the adult menu.
Chez Billy, 3815 Georgia Ave. NW. There may be a burger and grilled cheese on the menu, but kids can also order a healthy salad and a seasonal soup — recently, a pumpkin and ginger soup was on the menu.
Cuba Libre, 801 Ninth St. NW. Arroz con pollo and churrasco steak come in petite portions on this menu, with every item priced at $7.95.
Woodberry Kitchen, 2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126, Baltimore. The dinner menu of this popular Baltimore restaurant offers kids some pretty typical dishes of plain chicken and cheese pizza, but if you come for brunch, your kids can order French toast with plum compote or wood oven flatbread with cheese & herbs.