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Time to Ban the Kid's Menu

Four people walk into a restaurant. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, right? It is.

Because when they sit down, the two adults get one menu and the two kids get another. On the adult menu there are foods of all colors and flavors. There are salads, fish and meats. There are spicy foods and bland foods, warm dishes and cold ones. On the kid's menu, there are yellow things.

This makes me so furious, I can hardly type straight. But I can muster the focus to give you my partial list of offenses perpetuated by the kid's menu:

The food is bad for them. Period. The template for a kid's menu has the following: mac and cheese, pasta with butter, chicken tenders, grilled cheese, quesadilla (which, somehow, no one recognizes as grilled cheese) and pizza. The menus offering vegetables usually do so in the form of sauce (as in, red sauce for the pasta) or fries (as in, French fries). If you deign to ask for some fruit or broccoli or carrots, the reply is often, "We'll have to charge for that." Ding!

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The drinks are bad for them, too. Lemonade, apple juice or whole milk. Sometimes there is 2 percent milk available, but skim is for wusses. The kids who ask for water are made to feel like losers.

You are not saving money. The $6.95 for each of your two kid's meals is the same as $6.95 + $6.95, which equals $13.90—which is no different from one adult portion. So you could get them almost anything they want off the adult menu and divide it between them and spend the same amount. This is not complicated math here.

The crayon secret. Yes, they may come attached to the kid's menu, but your kids can draw even if they don't order from it. That's a little-known tip.

You are being robbed of the socialization of a family meal. Why is it that the kid's meal always comes first? In fact, it arrives so early that your kids will be done by the time your main course arrives. This means that you will spend your dinner begging your children to come up from under the table (worst-case scenario) or walking them back and forth to the bathroom because they were sure they really needed to go (best case). They are bored, and they have a carb-and-sugar high from that meal they just ate. Bad combo.

They are missing an opportunity to explore new tastes. Going out to dinner is very predictable for kids who order off the kid's menu: They know what they are going to have before you even get in the car, regardless of whether you are going for American cuisine, pan-Asian or Mexican. They are going to eat something yellow—either fried, filled with cheese or both. And then they are going to feel gross after dinner and not know why. They won't even really identify it as feeling gross, because this is how they always feel after eating out at restaurants.

Kid's menus come with dessert. Or at least they offer them. Right there in black and white. And you look like a jerk for not letting them get one.

I'll stop here because my rant has gone on long enough, and it would be no fun if I didn't leave some space to fill in with your own diatribe. But joking aside, this is no joke. We are raising a generation of children who eat terribly and don't exercise nearly enough. It is our job to turn this tide, and it starts with rejecting the kid's menu.

Obesity is an equal-opportunity predator. It doesn't matter where you live or how old you are, if you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. And if you are a kid, you are supposed to gain weight in order to grow, but only up to a point. If you overdo it, you will become too heavy. There are many reasons why we've seen a surge in obesity rates in this country over the past couple of decades, but the bottom line is that no one is immune. One out of every three kids is obese or overweight, according to the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and the Centers for Disease Control says two out of every three adults are, too. The problem starts before many kids are even out of diapers. So we need to stop thinking this isn't real or doesn't, on some level, apply to every family in this country.

Here's what I have done with my own kids since they were toddlers. I am not trying to show off or pretend they are perfect because, trust me, I have spent many a meal telling them that they need to get their bottoms into that chair and actually use a fork. But one thing we don't have to do is negotiate over the kid's menu, because they have learned to eat like adults. And it's pretty simple.

1. When the adults order appetizers, so do my kids. Most of the time they get a plate of steamed vegetables, whatever the restaurant may have available. Peas, string beans, carrots, veggie medley, whatever. They'll also try soups like minestrone or lentil. We haven't ventured into salads yet.

2. When it's time to pick a main course, they share. If they don't want the same thing, each will choose something to share with one of the adults. Adult portions are too big for adults anyhow, but that's a whole other topic. Take-home point: You can actually share with your kid.

3. Sometimes they will get an appetizer as a main course. Two appetizers can make a great, healthy dinner. This rule applies to adults, too (see above point).

4. And almost always, they are praised by the wait staff. Since they are eating at the same pace as everyone else, their behavior looks better (no time to crawl under the table). And since they are willing to have green, red and orange on their plates, they seem to be utter standouts.

So just try it. Break free from the shackles of the kid's menu. Your kids will eat better, feel better, grow better. And you'll enjoy dinners out more. But best of all, if enough people do it, perhaps restaurants will remove the option altogether and you can feel as if you have done your part to help fight the obesity epidemic. Now that's a real grassroots movement.

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