As a child, there are many things to look forward to when the summer holidays finally arrive. Homework can be forgotten about for a few months, school uniforms can be packed away until September, and for many, a two week holiday in the sun will bring adventure, excitement, and lots of new experiences. Memories are made of this.
To little people, first holidays abroad present so many opportunities for self-discovery. I still remember the smell of oil and the sea, and the sound of clanking metal and squarking seagulls as obedient lines of cars rolled onto the ferry on our first voyage to Brittany in the 70s. I remember the sheer thrill of being understood by a beaming local shopkeeper as those first shy words of French were tentatively offered, an almost whispered "s'il vous plaît". And no child can ever forget walking into a public toilet for the first time only to find a hole-in-the-ground and no instruction on what to do. As a 5 year old, I don't think I got it right, or rather I don't think my aim was so good.
Sanitary arrangements aside, the most enlightening experience of my childhood holidays was the food, and I have no doubt that it was this early exposure to interesting local dishes that influenced my love of cooking today. Even 35 years on, I still remember eating Moules Marinières for the first time and loving it, not just the deep flavour of the sea, but the ritual of pinching the strange looking orange meat from the shells. From this introduction to shellfish, I soon graduated up to the assorted crustacea of an Assiette de L'Ecailler and then onto the full seafood pile up that is the legendary Plateau de Fruits de Mer, which because my siblings were allergic to shellfish, i got to share with my dad. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to try this stuff at an early age as it has made me a fearless eater without any food related hang ups.
Holidays by their nature offer a great opportunity for new culinary experiences. When you are staying in hotels you have no choice but to eat in restaurants, and self-caterers have the opportunity to try out fantastic produce from local markets, the quality of which they wouldn't normally find back at their local Asda. However over the past couple of weeks of travelling around France with a 5 year old I have noticed a real problem when many restaurants try and cater for little ones - the dreaded Menu Enfant. I should add that this is not just a French thing, kids menus in most British restaurants leave a lot to be desired and only serve to reinforce a stereotype (wrongly) of what children like to eat.
I hate kids menus with their safe but boring and unhealthy staples of burgers, sausage and mash, pasta with bolognaise, chicken nuggets and chips, fish fingers and margherita pizza. We wouldn't accept it if they were the only options available in schools these days so why do restaurants limit themselves to such rubbish. Branded restaurant chains are the worst. A glance at Frankie and Bennys demonstrates the ultra conformist nature of kids menus and surprisingly even Jamies Italian has pretty much the same selection, but with trendy kid-friendly names. The fish fingers may be 'Happy Fish Fingers' and made from organic, sustainable fish, but they are still fish fingers. The burgers are 'Mini Sliders' and 'Puppy Dogs' are just hot dogs. All this from the guy who so admirably campaigned for the standards of school food to be raised. The most frustrating thing is that there are authentic Italian dishes on Jamie's menu that would work so well as kids dishes - Ricotta Gnudi, Lasagna, Turkey Milanese, Chicken Primavera - all could be adapted to appeal to kids. As adults, one of the things we enjoy about eating out is the variety of choices available to us. If every restaurant served the same thing then, quality aside, what would be the point in eating in different places. How much variety do your kids really get when they are taken to restaurants? Are they being conditioned to associate restaurants with overcooked burgers or uninspiring pasta with a chocolate brownie or bowl of ice cream to finish? If so then what a wasted opportunity.
I love it when restaurants eschew the traditional kids menu, where the chef can produce something simple but delicious either by adapting the dishes on the main menu or by using simple ingredients that they have in stock, a chicken breast and some vegetables for example, or some braised meat with mashed potato. The very existence of a kids menu leads parents by default to only offer their children the choice of what is on it, without considering if a half portion of something on the main menu would be a more exciting or healthier option. In restaurants where there is no kids menu, parents may have to think a tiny bit harder but you know what, there is invariably something simple that they can come up with that the child will love, and it won't necessarily be a cremated burger or involve chips.
During our family holiday this year we ate in several restaurants with no kids menu to choose from. As a result, our five year old daughter had no option but to eat a steak that was so rare most Brits would have have sent it back. She didn't bat an eyelid and ate the whole lot. She had her first experience of paella and realised that, like her dad, she loves mussels, so much so that in another restaurant she turned down a simple Croque Monsieur in favour of a Moules Marinières. Whenever she did have something like pasta from a kids menu, it was so devoid of flavour that she invariably ended up trying a forkful of a 'grown up' dish and preferred it to hers, a case in point being the traditional Boeuf Bourgignon we ended up sharing in a restaurant in Burgundy.
Writing this piece, I have realised that it is time to take a stand against kids menus. As parents we need to challenge restaurants to do better, challenge ourselves to ignore the lazy option of burgers, pastas, pizzas, and challenge our children to gradually open their minds and palettes to new flavours and textures.
As Whitney said, the children are our future. We must teach them well and let them lead the way.