“Would you like to see the children’s menu?”
We’re rounding off a memorable late summer break on the West Cumbrian coast with a pub meal. I’d rather we were sitting in the beer garden with halos of September sun in our hair. But our table is in a sea of dark spindleback chairs surrounded by sticky toffee carpet and local history-laden walls. The menu looks promising. I ordered some vegan “creamy” Penang curries and a local seafood salad. The alert barman then gestures to the eight-year-old. “Oh, she’s having the salad,” I say.
Duly, the seafood salad arrives and is placed before the ravenous child. In the Wham! -infused bar lounge, its utter sensuousness comes as a shock. The plate overflows with an abundance of creativity, flavour, nutrition, and ambition. It’s crowned with flourishes of fruit, a physalis with papery brown leaves, a blackberry, a pineapple twist, grapes, pomegranate seeds and a strawberry. It’s an adventure playground on a plate, a feast of discovery. Why can’t children’s menus look and taste like this?
In an era of rampant food poverty and picky eating, with parents overstretched in so many ways, it’s perhaps ridiculous to even ask. But the exuberance of the salad made me reflect on how impoverished children’s dining experiences are. Baked-in choices like chicken nuggets, pasta in tomato sauce or pizza are a child’s only options, over and over again. Parents may not have the time, the skills and the money to put exciting, healthy, place-based food on the table for their children. But we can demand more of children’s catering, and chefs like this could turn the tide on the poverty of opportunity.
Granted, the salad is not as locally sourced, seasonal and organic as it might be, and wild caught Queen scallops are only on the amber ‘OK’ list by the marine conservation society. But there is much to celebrate. A child asks for salad with local crab claw meat and Queen scallops after a day of rock pooling and crabbing with the hazy peaks of the Isle of Man on the horizon. Recently, over the water in a Manx museum, she’d learnt about the ecology and habitat of “queenie” scallops. Significant relationships are being forged in a child’s mind between place and plate, and this food is a chance to explore and value local food and the challenges to its sustainability.
So, no to the children’s menu, thanks, and yes to encouraging children’s appetite for change.