If you didn’t know anything about American children, and were suddenly shown a kid’s menu from just about any restaurant, what would you think? That kids have an unhealthy relationship with French fries and grilled cheese? That chicken tenders and peanut butter sandwiches must contain some nutrients essential for child development? Although these foods seem as if they’ve been around forever, children’s menus have only been around for the last hundred or so years. Their arrival on the restaurant scene represented a new era both in dining, and in American attitudes towards children.
Before the early 1900s, kids ate what their parents ate. They might have had smaller portions, but if adults were eating headcheese and drinking coffee, so were the small fry. Children’s menus were unheard of partly because children were rarely seen in restaurants. In the 1800s, most restaurants were taverns or inns, places that refused to serve children because it would interfere with their older, drinking clientele.
In the early 1900s, several things helped change America’s eating patterns. For the first time, scientific studies showed that children and their growing bodies had unique dietary needs that set them apart from adults. Unfortunately, for the most part, that meant bland, plain, simply prepared things. You might not have seen hamburgers and fries on these early menus, but you would have seen boiled potatoes, prune whip, and broiled lamb chops. Bread and butter was always on offer, as well as, somewhat surprisingly, cake; although this type of cake wasn’t the typical frosted layer cake that we know today and would have been closer to a nutty, dense breakfast bread.
Another larger, more meaningful change happened to American women. At the turn of the century, it finally became socially acceptable for women to eat outside the home without male companions. As the women’s liberation movement gained steam and social norms changed, women began to dine unaccompanied in tea rooms, department store dining rooms, and even corner cafes and taverns. And where women went, so did children. It didn’t take long for savvy business owners to realize that an entire segment of the population could be drawn to an establishment if they made special efforts to cater to their young charges.
The very first kid’s menus appeared in department store cafes. As early as 1916, Marshall Field’s in Chicago advertised their children’s menu in local newspapers. These menus looked strikingly similar to the ones we see today: they were colorful, covered with depictions of fairy tales or easy games, and came with a side of crayons. Early children’s menus also appeared in railway dining cars: after all, the kids on a train were a captive audience, cooped up with nowhere to go, so a chance to draw and play would have been a welcome one for kids – and their parents!
The food on these menus was also quite similar to what we still see today – simple, bland and forgettable. After the 1930s, a hot cereal called pablum was offered at most breakfasts, which provided a palate-numbing dose of essential vitamins and minerals mixed in with the oatmeal, powdered alfalfa leaf and brewer’s yeast. Broiled lamb chops were ever present, along with clear soups and milk toast. The overwhelming trend towards fried food in kid’s menus didn’t start until the 1950s, when fast food restaurants began to take over America. Coincidentally, the 1950s marked the arrival of a food that was to dominate kid’s menus for at least the next 60 years: the chicken nugget, invented by a Cornell University food scientist during this decade.