The Truth about Kid Food

toddler foodToddlers are known to put pretty much anything in their mouths.  In the case of my own children that included everything from small toy parts, to coins found in a sewer grate, to dog food. We were assured by our pediatrician and child development experts that this was completely normal behavior for a toddler, and just their way of exploring the world around them. What they couldn’t explain to me is why this didn’t apply to actual food.  When served something they didn’t recognize, they would stubbornly clamp their mouths shut and refuse to open it again until the offending item was removed from their plates.

My husband and I proudly told others that we don’t serve kid food, just food, and our children would learn to eat it, and even like it, or go hungry.  We repeated this even as our children rejected it outright, choosing to go to bed without dinner rather than eat what was being served, and then waking up before the crack of dawn, demanding bowls of cereal to fill their empty stomachs.  Even as our first-born’s daycare provider lamented that he hadn’t eaten his lunch of leftovers yet again, and, with increasing impatience, explained for the umpteenth time that we should pack bland, simple toddler food. To this, I always feigned surprise, citing the fact that he had eaten it for dinner the night before (but carefully omitting the part about bribing him with dessert).

To be honest, I really didn’t understand why this was the case.  I have read that in most countries outside of the US, toddlers and kids eat what their parents eat (Badal, 2005).  Food experts insist that kids “tend to rise to the culinary bar we set for them” (Humes, 2013), or some such similar phrase. I once met a family that had adopted a toddler from China who had learned in the orphanage how to debone a fish with his tongue, sucking off the meat and discarding the rest.  Hard to imagine my children ever doing that, and harder still to imagine letting them try, but clearly this left an impression on me.

I took such examples as my own personal gospel.  I would not stoop to the level of greasy chicken nuggets or starchy overcooked pasta.  Despite the raised eyebrows of dinner guests, and questioning looks of restaurant waitstaff when we declined the children’s menu, we insisted that our kids would eat real food.  I don’t ever remember my parents making us separate meals.  Moreover, my parents insisted that in their day, children ate what they were served and didn’t complain, because there were people starving in Europe (by the time it was my turn, the starving people could be found in Africa).  It made me wonder then, “When exactly did we, Americans, start serving kid meals?”

It turns out that it was a whole lot earlier than my parents led me to believe. Food historians seem to agree that the practice started just before the turn of the 20th century when several changes were happening in American society.  It was finally becoming socially acceptable for women to be out in society without a man, and to shop, travel and dine on their own. But as any parent who has repeatedly dragged their whining, cranky toddler along on a day of errands knows, where there are women, there are sure to be children.  It didn’t take long for dining establishments to realize that feeding and entertaining the children could make loyal customers out of their mothers.  Department store café’s, tea rooms, and train dining cars published some of the earliest kid’s menus, which were strikingly similar to the ones we see today, complete with games, puzzles and cartoons, and presented with a small box of crayons.

Around the same time, scientific studies began to show that the growing bodies of children had different nutritional needs than adults.  The most popular text, influential for several generations of mothers, nurses and chefs, was The Care and Feeding of Children, by Dr. Emmett Holt.  First published in 1894, it remained in print and circulation for most of the next 50 years. It argued that what children should be eating was plain, bland food (sound familiar?), such as lamb chops, boiled potatoes, bread and butter, and prune whip (all ubiquitous on children’s menus of the day).  Fresh fruit, pork, pies or tarts, and even tomato soup were all forbidden, though the scientific reasoning for this was unclear.  Fancy food in general was strongly discouraged, but mostly on the basis that it would cause kids to reject the plain food.  Not exactly scientific either, but understandable.

While these notable examples began as early as the late 1800s, most food historians seem to agree that children’s menus and meals really came into vogue just after Prohibition.  Hotels and restaurants, which were no longer allowed to serve alcoholic drinks, had to make up the lost revenue somehow, and so began enticing families to bring their children to their dining rooms for specially prepared children’s meals.  Some establishments even advertised that the children’s food was approved by the American Child Health Association (whose founding vice president, incidentally, was Dr. Holt) or was under the supervision of a house physician. Though the restauranteurs seemed to take the advice of these doctors, it appears to be less out of concern for proper nutrition for children, and more as justification for their new capitalist venture.

As documented in Reisman’s (1950, 1953, 1961) now famous analysis of the changing character of middle class America, by the 1950s, attitudes toward food and child-rearing were shifting once again.  By this time, middle class Americans had grown weary of the monotony of bland food and the conservative diet.  The focus now was less on health and nutrition, but rather on the joy of cooking (as demonstrated by the popular cookbook of the same name), and on the pleasure of eating. Moreover, Americans had become preoccupied with status and the perception and acceptance of others.  This applied to everything from consumer behavior, to the symbolic meaning of food served in the home, to raising and nurturing children who were appropriately opinionated and able to negotiate for what they wanted with both parents and peers.

At the same time, the industrial processed food industry was booming, as was television and its associated advertising.  Commercials marketed easy-to-prepare, feel good, but as we now know, nutritionally deficient products, aimed at the status conscious, middle class consumer and their now voluble, insistent children.  Busy moms could feed their families quickly and efficiently, and even separate meals if they so desired, and were rewarded with happy, satisfied smiles.  Restaurants, too, found they could make even more money by relying on the cheaper, stripped-down products of the growing processed food industry, and parents were pleased with the scaled down prices and lack of complaints from their little picky eaters.

Today, it is still fairly commonplace in both restaurants and American homes for children and adults to be served separate meals. Moreover, while most well-educated Americans seem to know that processed food and restaurant kid meals, despite small attempts to improve them, just aren’t good for growing bodies, we find ourselves feeding them to our kids anyway. Parents (though still more often moms) are short-order cooks, making separate meals to satisfy every appetite in the household.  We debate the wisdom of this, asking the opinions and advice of friends (still looking for the social acceptance of others, as no one wants to feel like the mean mommy), searching the internet for suggestions, and feeling frustrated when our children stubbornly refuse to eat the healthier options.

The internet child/food experts tell me that I should keep serving my kids the same food over and over again—did you know it may take more than 10 tries before a toddler accepts a new food?!—though, given the way I was raised, I find it difficult to keep throwing away the rejected food night after night. Yes, I’m a sociologist studying food and culture, but I’m also a frustrated middle class American mom who feels she is still failing to feed her whole family the same healthy meal.  So, I’m asking you: Do/did you make separate meals for your kids?  Why or why not?  What do/did you do if they won’t eat what is being served for dinner?

Badal, T. (2005) What toddlers eat around the world. Parents. Retrieved from

Humes, M. (2013, Aug. 7) Feeding the kiddie: A brief history of the children’s menu. Slate. Retrieved from

Reisman, D. (1961, [1953, 1950]). The Lonely Crowd. New Haven:  Yale University Press.

4 thoughts on “The Truth about Kid Food

  1. Raised in a home by a nutritionist mother in the 1950s we all sat down to a balanced dinner together. We begged for TV dinners but that was a very rare happening. We had to eat desert because it was fruit; that did take some of the fun out of that part of the meal. But I have to say that my mother was creative with four children; all fussy eaters. One of our favorite breakfast treats was sponge cake with chocolate sauce dripped on top. Our friends were jealous when we told them of the morning treat. When we grew up she divulged the secret. The cake was made with a dozen eggs and she cut it into 12 pieces. She knew when we went off to school that she had managed to get an egg in us without a fight.
    When I got married and had a child I tried to keep our dinner a time like I had as a child. When a dance schedule made that impossible it fell apart. We each eat totally different meals. A husband with a very restricted diet, I am a vegetarian and a daughter that eats things I never thought anyone ate. Times change and sitting together to eat in my childhood was normal and every once in a while I miss it. I am so proud that my grandchildren live 3 miles away and cook together and sit down together every night. This was a great post that made me think of the past and perhaps some changes to the future.


    1. I loved this post too. I love this topic. I vowed to never be a short order cook. When my son was born, we simply shared our meals with him. To prepare him for this, I made almost all my own baby food and spiced it up with curry and garlic. He is a great eater and loves to try new things; he has never ordered off a kids menu. While I am proud and would like to take all the credit for this, how can I when my daughter is just the opposite even though she was raised the same way. She is picky and only likes processed American fare…think burgers and fries..think kids menus. I fought it long and hard, and lost. My house was vegetarian until I realized she should have a say too or really I also got tired of throwing away fresh food night after night that went uneaten. In addition, do I really want the only quality time with my child to be overshadowed by a silent battle? Also, now that she is older, she will just eat at her friends house across the street, so I am letting go of the fresh food battle. Our pantry now has boxed macaroni and cheese, our freezer has frozen pizza and on nights when we have too much going on or are tired from yesterday’s “too much going on”, think soccer practice, evening clients, and big projects, not to mention cleaning, organizing, volunteering, fundraising, etc.. processed food is convenient and fast, and popular. In addition, my husband is a vegetarian and I am gluten free. So here we are: our priority is to eat dinner together almost every night despite our schedules, but one or two nights a week it is indeed a meal of quick, processed shame and guilt. One or two nights a week, we cook fresh and healthy and we are serving fish and smoky brussel sprouts that is what is for dinner; it has been more than 14 tries for many foods and she still hates all of them. Admittedly, some nights a week I am a short order cook and some nights are cereal nights. I call this reality and balance and focus on the dinner conversation.


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