5 Things Restaurant Kids' Menus Are Telling Your Kids

As I wrote last week, eating at home every single day is not a realistic goal for most people. This is why being able to select healthy options when dining outside of the home is one of the 5 Key Skills of Healthy Eaters.

This skill is more important than ever because of how frequently

Americans are now eating in restaurants. Last year, for the first time, Americans spent more at restaurants than they did at grocery stores. Eating out has changed from an occasional splurge to a common choice. This frequency makes it impossible to maintain an overall healthy diet without being able to make good choices outside of the home, where very often options are designed based purely on taste with little to no consideration for health. (Very likely, this increase in dining out is at least partly responsible for over 2/3 of American adults being overweight or obese.)

Unfortunately, while traveling this summer with my family, I noticed that the kids’ menus we came across in restaurants of many types communicate

messages that undermine parents’ efforts to help their children become healthy eaters.

Here are five messages about food

kids' menus are giving your kids...

(Followed by five better places to order from.)

1. Kids Need to Eat Different Foods than Adults.

At this point this may be something that you’ve taken for granted because the whole concept of a “Kids Menu” has become so ubiquitous. But is it even true?

On sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor a restaurant is only marked kid-friendly if it offers a separate menu for kids. Should we think that without a designated kids’ menu a restaurant doesn’t prepare any foods suitable for children? This seems silly. We aren’t different species. We are all human.

The randomly set age limit of 12 often assigned to these menus highlights just how crazy this separation of menus are. It suggests that 12 and 13-year old children eat completely different types of food. Whatever could happen that year to change their taste buds (and nutritional needs) so drastically?

2. There are only about 5 foods that kids can eat.

I can read a kids’ menu with my eyes shut. (If you have kids, I bet you can too!) At restaurant after restaurant, chain or not, these same options await your child: pizza, pasta, chicken nuggets, hamburger and grilled cheese, with a side of fries always an option (even with the pasta!). Sometimes the pasta has cheese and sometimes tomato sauce. Once in a while you will see a hot dog (don’t get me started on this one).

Though restaurants may spend considerable time and talent developing unique and interesting menus, when it comes to the kids’ menu this often seems lacking. Instead, these foods are low in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants and disturbingly high is saturated fat and refined carbohydrates.

When you do visit a restaurant with an original kids’ menu, be sure to thank them! They are rare and special gems.

3. Food for kids comes in only certain colors.

Let’s look at those typical kids’ menu options again more closely:

Pizza: white, red, yellow

Pasta: white, red (tomato sauce) or yellow (cheese)

Hamburger: white, brown, red (ketchup)

Grilled cheese: white, yellow

Chicken nuggets & fries: white, brown, red (ketchup)

While I often can be heard encouraging my clients (as well as my own children) to “eat a rainbow” by choosing foods in a wide variety of (naturally-occurring) colors, these menus’ color spectrum ranges from only white and yellow to red and brown. That's no rainbow I've ever seen!

A limited color palette is not only visually unappealing, it signals a lack of variety of antioxidants in the meals.

4. Kids don’t eat fruits and vegetables (with two exceptions).

Again, looking at the options on the typical kids’ menu, there’s an obvious lack of fruit and vegetables. Not surprisingly, the two notable exceptions are also the most commonly consumed vegetables in the US: tomatoes and potatoes, found in the form of ketchup or tomato sauce and French fries. (It should be noted that commercially made ketchup is also a significant source of sugar in the quantities many children eat.)

Often times when other vegetables are offered they’re done so as a choice in exchange for the ubiquitous French fries. “Honey, do you want French fries or steamed broccoli?” Do we need to even ask this question? My kids regularly eat broccoli, but asking them to choose it over French fries is a lot to ask. (For younger kids that can’t read, order the broccoli while you can!)

5. Every meal comes with dessert.

Very often dessert is included in the price of a kids’ meal and is just as big as the entrée! These desserts (and sometimes a sweetened beverage as well) give kids way more sugar than they should have in a given day (3-4 teaspoons maximum a day, depending on their age) and doesn’t communicate that sugar-sweetened desserts should be considered once in a while foods, not every day foods that support our health.

So what can you do differently to change the messages

being conveyed to your kids at restaurants?

Check out one or more of these five places on the menu instead...

1) Appetizers

First things first, depending on a child’s age, appetizers can be the perfect portion size for a meal. For older kids, an appetizer can be paired with another menu choice for a complete meal. Here you may find bruschetta or a hummus and vegetable platter.

2) Soups

It’s hard to make a soup that doesn’t include a few vegetables at minimum. Choose a cup or a bowl as best suits your child’s appetite. With a few crackers or bread to dip, you might find it’s even a less expensive option than the kids menu.

3) Salads

Salads usually contain an assortment of vegetables (obvious, I know), but another great thing about salads is that they’re usually easy to customize if you don’t see an exact assortment that suits your child on the menu. Order the dressing (or two) on the side if younger kids prefer dipping.

4) Sides

As someone who has been either vegetarian or vegan for over 25 years I have certainly enjoyed some delicious meals comprised of only side dishes when I’ve found myself at a restaurant without an entrée I wished to eat. This is another great way to create a customized plate for your child. I try to go for multiple colors on my plate, like with sweet potatoes, sautéed greens, cauliflower and peppers.

5) Half portions of adult entrées

If restaurants will accommodate, a half portion of an adult entrée might be the best choice for your child. If you have two kids, having them share one entrée can also be an option. Adult entrées tend to offer a much wider selection and include more vegetables.

So next time you’re out to eat, consider turning down the offer of kids’ menus and trying one of these other approaches. Eating from the “adult” menu will offer your children a nutritionally superior, larger assortment of options that will also prepare them better for the task of ordering healthy foods for themselves as they grow up.

And if your kids are like mine, they will think eating off the "big" menu is pretty cool too...

YOUR TURN: What tactics have you tried to find healthier options for your kids or yourself at restaurants?


Hi there! 
I’m Jennifer Haubrich, wife, mother, certified natural food chef & health coach (AADP).


I help smart families re-chart their path to create a delicious, healthy lifestyle by including more plant-based foods in their diet.

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