A children’s menu is the last place you’ll find healthy food – The National

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Over the many years that my three little ones have attended birthday parties, in the UAE and back home in the UK, the three food options have never changed: chicken nuggets and chips, burger and chips, cheese pizza and chips.

As such, the words “children’s menu” conjure up images of certain foods. If it’s deep-fried or a carbohydrate, or a deep-fried carbohydrate, it’s likely to be found on there.

Fries? Certainly. Nuggets? For sure. Cheeseburgers, mini pizzas, pasta with red sauce, fish bites? Check.

The modern children’s menu has become a byword for junk food that offers next to no nutritional value and very little in the way of flavour, as if evolving taste buds needed protecting from the dangers of deliciousness.

The two main places to find a children’s menu are at restaurants and birthday parties. And, let’s be honest, the mission here is cheap food that’s quick and easy to fry.

I should probably point out I’m not here to spoil anyone’s food fun.

The children’s menu is a little one’s first taste of independence

There’s a time and a place for a chicken nugget in all its crunchy, deep-fried glory, and I’m certainly not above stealing one of those bad boys from my child’s plate while distracting them with a: “Hey, isn’t that Blippi over there?”

Children’s menus are not the place to get sanctimonious. Nor are they the culinary hill I will die on. That hill, in case you wondered, is my right to ask for my steak well done, without being made to feel like I have betrayed both chef and cow.

What I do think, however, is that for many little ones, the children’s menu is one of their first tastes of independence. The importance of experiencing being handed a menu, asked what they would like and being allowed to make their own food choices can’t be underestimated.

And we are doing them a disservice by making every one of those choices high-fat and high-calorie.

The children’s menu is something of an anathema in France, where many restaurants don’t have them. The idea being that children are small versions of adults, and are perfectly capable of eating the same things as grown-ups. Little ones order off the main menu, which offers half-sized portions for smaller appetites.

This makes sense, because when you think about it, there’s no such thing as adult food or children’s food; there’s just food.

As with the modern-day demographic of teenagers, which was invented in the 1940s, foods aimed at little ones are merely a marketing trick used to create another socioeconomic group to be sold to. A group that is super-susceptible to marketing and advertising.

The links between childhood diet and health in later years is inescapable

Children have eaten the same foods as their parents for millennia, albeit in smaller portions. Even a few decades ago, the idea of them expecting a different meal from mum and dad simply by dint of being smaller would have earned most a clip round the ear.

And while I’m not suggesting a return to “the good old days” of sending tweens back up chimneys as a way of introducing them to the adult world, occasionally being served what mum and dad are having will do no harm. If anything …

The links between childhood diet and health in later years is inescapable.

A recent study by the British Heart Foundation published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that diets high in calories, fat and sugar in childhood can damage blood vessel function and cause stiff arteries as early as adolescence, which in turn can heighten the risk of early heart attacks and strokes.

“Parents can promote a balanced diet by emphasising whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains,” says Sushma Ghag, dietetics specialist at Aster Hospital, Mankhool. “While occasional treats are acceptable, moderation is key.

“Encouraging healthy eating habits from a young age and involving children in meal planning fosters a positive relationship with food. This approach allows for occasional indulgences without compromising overall nutritional well-being,” explains Dr Ghag.

The places where children’s menus are found also help link the idea in young minds that unhealthy food choices are the fun choices.

Beating the McDonald’s Happy Meal by six years, one of the first mass-promoted children’s menus came courtesy of defunct US fast food chain Burger Chef. In 1973, it introduced the Funmeal, which contained a burger, French fries, a cookie, drink and a small toy.

Fifty years later, not much has changed.

The message is clear: Burgers are fun and French fries are happy. Not like all those unfun, unhappy nutritious meals with their vegetables and protein.

A balanced diet can easily allow for a burger every now and then, even a double one with extra cheese. And as far as chicken nuggets go, enjoy them with your favourite dipping sauce by all means.

But if we’re going to give children food choices on their own special small-person menus, we’re not doing them any favours by making all of those choices unhealthy ones; that’s simply setting them up for failure.

To paraphrase that great philosophical thinker Yoda: Do or do not, there is no fry.

Updated: January 26, 2024, 6:02 PM

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