“Where shall we go to eat?”, was once a question that bounced from my watering lips with pleasure, buoyed by anticipation of a relaxed and enjoyable experience that would leave me feeling satisfied.
Now it is an issue that fills my empty belly with dread and casts a shadow over any, thus far cheery, social outing.
The best place to dine, when you have young children in tow, no longer means the restaurant with the best food, the best value for money or even that which is your favourite.
In fact for parents, food is practically off the menu when it comes to choosing a suitable venue to have a family meal. The top priorities are highchairs, space to park the buggy, guarantee of a table as soon as you arrive, that table not being laid with an abundance of glass, heavy cutlery, water-filled floral arrangements and bottles of spicy sauce within easy reach of little hands and food on the menu that they will actually eat.
This brings me to the matter of the Children’s Menu.
Often it comes with crayons, stickers and other items of entertainment that will amuse your child for as long as it takes for you to order drinks – if you’re lucky – and then will end up flung on the floor in a puddle of spilt water. And while these distractions are welcome, they are not really essential. My daughter would take a complimentary bread basket over crayons any day.
My first bugbear with the Children’s Menu is the type of food that it usually comprises. Various bread-crumbed foods such as chicken nuggets or fish fingers with chips. Chips always feature heavily. You may get a simple pizza or a plain pasta. But the overriding quality of all the foods will be blandness.
It seems to me that whoever designs these Children’s Menus has taken the message of too much salt being unhealthy to mean that children just don’t deserve any seasoning at all. I ordered my daughter a plate of pasta from a Children’s Menu recently that came topped with, from what I could tell, a tin of tomatoes heated up with a few undercooked onions in it.
If all they are presented with are these dull, drab options, can we really be surprised if our children choose not to eat them?
This brings me to my second issue with said Children’s Menu – the cost. One objects to forking out these prices for tasteless food that you are more than likely going to end up having to eat yourself when your child decides they prefer the look of what is on your plate.
I suppose that is my real problem with Children’s Menus. Most of the eateries that offer them are not the places I would choose to eat if I was dining without my little circling seagull. They may present their deals of three courses and a drink plus some stickers as some kind of ‘deal’. But I can’t see the value in it if it means I have to pay over the odds for a mediocre meal myself.
But what is the alternative?
Taking them to your favourite old haunt – where they dust off an ancient highchair and squeeze you into a dark corner at the back. Then your child devours the entire bread basket, spills the water jug across the table, shouts loudly at other diners and refuses to eat the starter you ordered them. Only giving up the delicious special you had been looking forward to all year will keep them quiet. Eventually it is thrust back at you – cold, half-chewed, swimming in a pool of backwash and you stuff it into your mouth hungrily while simultaneously trying to catch the waiter’s attention to ask for the bill and swallow half a glass of warm white wine. You dash for an emergency nappy change (using your roll-up mat on the floor of the loo, as there are no baby-changing facilities) before creeping out sheepishly, knowing you will never be able to darken their door again.
Having said that, if you opt to eat out in a bland chain restaurant, you will more than likely still end up wolfing down mouthfuls of food you don’t really enjoy, in between trying to control a rowdy child and mopping up spilt liquid. You still swallow a glass of warm white wine while simultaneously asking for the bill and then dash for an emergency nappy change, before finding yourself exposed to the entire restaurant when your child opens the disabled door and runs out while you are still sitting on the loo. You creep out sheepishly, knowing you will probably still darken their door again.
And even when they are old enough to choose their own food and sit through a meal, the chances are that their idea of a good place to eat will not match yours.
So perhaps the answer is to just not eat out with children. How unappetising.