The bistro was dark and noisy on the cold Boston night when my kids and I slid into the dark wood booth to have dinner. Around us, office workers, maybe some of the same ones we’d spied in a nearby building, laughed, ate and clinked glasses.
Across the table, my nine-year-old son Will hid his face behind the menu. He’d wanted burritos from a chain down the street. But that same chain was opening a location in our town, so I vetoed the suggestion in favor of a local place with a simple but creative menu. We were on vacation, and I explained that if we can get it at home, we shouldn’t eat there.
There wasn’t a kids menu at the bistro, which was fine because my kids don’t usually order off of it anyway. The too-small portions and predictable assortment of dry chicken fingers and microscopic sliders don’t appeal to them—especially not when the rest of the menu is filled with more thoughtful, flavorful dishes. Ironically, it was the same day that my newspaper food column had printed, extolling my kids’ adventurous palates and hatred of children’s menus.
I’d chosen this place after reading the offerings on the menu outside. It contained creative takes on dishes like flatbread pizzas, burgers and fish and I spied a dozen things each of my kids would like.
But as Will lowered the menu, I could see his eyes glistening in the way they do when you hold back tears. “Mama, I don’t see anything on the menu I want,” he said quietly.
I think on some level, Will expected me to respond with frustration but what he didn’t know is that a little more than 25 years ago, I was the kid looking at the unfamiliar menu with tears in my eyes. I know what it’s like to see words on a menu in front of you, but not recognize anything.
For a second, I entertained the idea of just leaving in favor of the burritos he’d requested. He looked so sad and lost, an adult menu clutched in his not-quite-tween hands. I hated that, especially since it jettisoned me back to my own experience.
As a child, for me, it was the Russian Tea Room in New York. In retrospect, there was probably a dozen dishes on that menu—albeit much fancier—that I would have adored, but I was completely overwhelmed by words and descriptions. I cried. Right there in the dining room of one of New York’s greatest institutions, I broke down in inconsolable tears. My mom didn’t know what to do with me. Eventually, a kind waiter ran across the street for a turkey club with no mayo. I survived, but I didn’t learn anything that day.
My initial reaction on that night in Boston was just to fix everything by leaving — much like my mom did when she accepted the offer to get a turkey club—but the reality was that leaving would do more harm than good. I knew there were things he’d like on the menu, but he was lost in a tangle of words and descriptions. Caught between the heartache of what felt like a parenting failure, and the knowledge that if I could explain, he’d feel differently, we stayed.
This wasn’t the Russian Tea Room, and despite fancy language on the menu, the food on the menu wasn’t unfamiliar. I took a breath, and deciphered a few menu items for him, asking him just to listen.
“Will, why don’t you get the burger,” I suggested. “The tomato jam on it is similar to ketchup, but we can have them put it on the side, if you want. And the greens they mention is just lettuce—the same kind we use at home, actually. I know it sounds very fancy, but it’s just words. I swear, you’ll like this. Trust me.”
Those last two words were the clincher. Will agreed, only slightly less stressed.
Meanwhile, my seven-year-old daughter had already chosen a flatbread pizza at my urging.
I could have encouraged them to order something more adventurous or just chosen for them. But in that moment, it wasn’t about making an adventurous choice, it was about being about to read beyond the fancy words like frites, mesclun greens and brioche buns to see that the food offered was really just basic good stuff with a twist. Moreover, it was being true to my word that my two kids who hate kids menus can order from any menu. If they could enjoy this one dinner, the next time they saw a menu with fancy language it wouldn’t be so scary. Ultimately, that small lesson opens up a world of food.
While we waited, the stress of the menu slipped away with a quiet game of “I Spy.” Soon my kids were laughing, chatting and planning our next day of adventures. They’d remarked on the differences between the bistro we were sitting in and other restaurants they’ve eaten in.
When our order arrived—two flatbread pizzas, a burger and fries, roasted brussels sprouts with bacon and glazed carrots—I silently wondered if I’d overshot a bit, selecting too much. But no one knows my children’s appetites and tastes better than I do. The kids dug in right away. Will tasted the tomato jam and declared it too sweet (to be fair, it is rather sweet) and instead opted to spread actual ketchup on it. Then he ate every last bite, nearly all the fries and a ton of brussels sprouts. My daughter devoured her pizza and almost the entire side order of carrots (along with a hearty share of brussels sprouts).
In the end, only a few fries, an errant end of a carrot or two and a few pieces of my flatbread pizza remained.
“That really was just a burger and fries,” Will said at last.
There, in the dim light of the bistro with my smiling, stuffed kids, I’d managed a hat trick of parenting. In that no-kids-menu zone, I’d convinced my children to read beyond the words, and they enjoyed it. At the same time, I also received a reminder that in my furor to raise respectful children who can fit in anywhere and enjoy anything, I can’t forget that they are still learning.
Sarah Walker Caron is a mother of two and author of Grains as Mains: Modern Recipes Using Ancient Grains, published by DK. She is senior features editor for the Bangor Daily News and blogs about food at sarahscucinabella.com and at mainecourse.bangordailynews.com.