At the age of 4, children of the near-extinct Kawésqar tribe of Chilean Patagonia spear and roast their own shellfish. This is eight years earlier than when kids who vacation in Cape Cod, Mass., come of shellfish age—that is, if the children’s menus found in every clam shack in the area are anything to go by. If a child is younger than 12, Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar will serve them a grilled cheese sandwich or a hot dog. But no clams.
Children tend to rise to the culinary bar we set for them, and children’s menus in America set the bar very low indeed. To look at the standard kids’ menu, greasy with prefab items like chicken fingers, tater tots, and mac-and-cheese, you might think that industrial food manufacturers have been responsible for setting it. But the delusion that a child even needs a special menu is a lot older than the chicken nuggets that have come to dominate it. In fact, the children’s menu dates back to Prohibition, when, remarkably, it was devised with a child’s health in mind. (To put that in perspective, this was also a time when clitoridectomies were performed with a child’s health in mind.)
Depending on where you stand vis-à-vis childrearing, the golden age of youth dining in America either began or ended with the Volstead Act. In the century leading up to the dry laws, children rarely ate out. A child had to be relatively well-off in order to dine in public, and a guest at a hotel to boot. (Restaurants not attached to hotels didn’t tend to serve children, reasoning that they got in the way of boozy grown-up fun.) But the lucky boy or girl who could tick these boxes was assured of a pretty good time. When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861 (his two volumes of crotchety travelogue were later published as North America), he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.
Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.
The earliest children’s menus didn’t look so different from the playful ones we know today. The Waldorf-Astoria put Little Jack Horner on the cover of their pink-and-cream booklet; as he brandishes his plummy thumb, a dish runs away with a spoon. But then there was the food—the bland, practically monastic food, appearing all the more austere for the teddy bear picnic taking place overleaf. Here was flaked chicken over boiled rice; here were mixed green vegetables in butter; here was a splat of prune whip. And the one dish that appeared without exception—the chicken nugget of the Jazz Age—was a plain broiled lamb chop.
The ubiquitous lamb chop embodied the highest principles of scientific childrearing, the prevailing doctrine of the early-20th-century nursery. Its central text was The Care and Feeding of Children, by the pediatrician Emmett Holt. First published in 1894, it stayed in print for nearly half a century, instructing mothers, nurses, and, apparently, chefs that young children were not to be given fresh fruits, nuts, or raisins in their rice pudding. Pies, tarts, and indeed “pastry of every description” were “especially forbidden,” and on no account were such items as ham, bacon, corn, cod, tomato soup, or lemonade to pass a child’s lips before his 10th birthday.
Emmett Holt didn’t tend to explain his rules, so we’re forced to guess at his reasoning. Pork was probably out because it was likely to carry parasites, and the prejudice against raw fruit dates back to antiquity, when the physician Galen observed that consuming it often ended in diarrhea (which can be fatal in small children). But guidelines like the one permitting only stale breads for children seem capricious if not punitive, and the closest Holt ever came to explaining them was his assertion that children who are allowed delicious foods soon reject the plain ones. Although he stopped short of saying what it was that was so inherently great about the plain ones, he seems to have believed there was moral danger in sensual pleasure, and damnation in indulgence.
It was this hodgepodge of medicine and morality that informed the first 20 years of children’s menus. Restaurants packed them with everything Emmett Holt said to, and they did it proudly. The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles was one of several establishments that advertised that their children’s fare had been “approved by the American Child Health Association” (of which Holt was the founding vice president). This meant that while parents dined on marrow dumplings in consommé, shirred eggs with asparagus and chicken livers, and barracuda in meunière sauce, their children were steered toward cream of vegetable soup served with a plain omelet. Some restaurants, like the one attached to Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel, even boasted a kiddie menu created “Under supervision of house physician.”
The idea that a child’s meal required the supervision of a Holtean physician was, of course, nonsense. As a boy, even Emmett Holt didn’t eat in the style of Emmett Holt. His sister Eliza Cheeseman once wrote him a letter reminding him of the bountiful picnics of their youth, when they had feasted on chicken pie and wild blackberry pie, on biscuits with cheese and pickles, and on as many pieces of cake as they could get away with—all washed down with great quantities of that deadly lemonade. “You ate all this,” she deadpanned, “and still live.”
By the World War II, the country had come around to Eliza’s point of view. With the 1946 publication of Baby and Child Care, Benjamin Spock succeeded Emmett Holt as the nation’s chief childrearing expert, and the very word “childrearing,” which has a whiff of livestock management about it, gave way to the gentler notion of “parenting,” which emphasized nurture over discipline. Yet, for all the collective relaxing over children’s diets in the postwar years, the children’s menu was not abandoned. Restaurants had grown reliant on its marketing benefits; children didn’t want to give up booklets that doubled as clown masks or featured punch-out airplanes; and parents, quite understandably, had become attached to the low prices. So the children’s menu persisted. Meanwhile, a growing processed-food industry made it irresistibly cost-effective to rewrite it with junked-up, dumbed-down foods. By the 1970s, the children’s menu as we know it today was basically in place: The design was as colorful as ever, but the food had been restricted to its present-day palette of browns and yellows.
Today, nutritionists are rightly appalled by the insipid, mostly fried fare designated for children. In response, a growing number of restaurants have tasked themselves with building a healthier children’s menu, but the approach taken by casual-dining chains like Red Lobster and Applebee’s is superficial: Instead of throwing out the chicken nuggets, they’re counting on sides of broccoli to magically counteract them. But even a more thorough revamp would be missing the point—namely, that children never needed a separate bill of fare to begin with. If there is any argument to be made for holding onto the kids’ menu, it is that contemporary portion sizes are more than a child can handle. (They’re more than most adults can handle, for that matter.) Moving forward, the industry might do well to look backward, to the children’s options offered in Parisian restaurants at the turn of the 20th century. This 1900 menu, from the Restaurant Gardes, has the right idea: a child’s cut-price prix fixe (couvert d’enfant) that doesn’t offer different food—just less of it.