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In America: ethnic restaurants and kids

It is a very common thing in the US, for parents to assume that kids cannot eat a lot of the ethnic dishes. To the point where most parents get something very generic, plain, and bland especially for the kids (like a grilled chicken breast dish) when the whole family go out to an ethnic restaurant.

Why is that?

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  1. You are confusing "cannot" with "will not." I was one of those children. I cried when I was served a cheeseburger that had alfafa sprouts on it, and refused to eat it. I refused to eat anything in a chinese restaurant except either plain rice, or plain fried rice, which is what I got. Literally, refused to eat. I refused to eat hundreds upon hundreds of tasty, healthy meals my mother prepared from scratch. All I wanted was hotdogs and "white" food (mashed potatoes, french fries, plain noodles, plain pasta). I picked the little bits of mushroom out of tuna noodle casserole. I would not eat anything with onions or green peppers because they tasted "hot" to me. I was a tiny, skinny, beanpole of a child and underweight most of my younger years because of my pickiness. Thankfully, I eventually outgrew it, and was socially pressured enough to try more things that in combination with maturity, my palate changed and developed. Now I like everything.

    Many kids are like I was, and it's not because the parents aren't trying to get them to eat different things.

    2 Replies
    1. re: rockandroller1

      I have no idea how my 4-year-old set up his own Chowhound account to post this. I am proud that he chose rockandroller as his handle tho ;)

      In all seriousness, this post describes me as a child to a T (if a restaurant didn't have pizza or hot dogs, I didn't eat...forget about cheeseburgers, I must have been the only kid who didn't like ANYTHING at McDonald's, well, except those divine cinnamon danishes that came in the styrofoam box...) and now my beanpole kid. We have put every food under the sun in front of him, repeatedly, as is suggested by every nutrition expert, and he has to try everything, but his repertoire is very, very limited. We're born with a preference for sweet - breast milk is sweet - and from there we move to grain cereals and fruits and vegetables in jars, but your sweetest and least offensive vegetables: carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans.... Getting a palate to appreciate/like something that isn't bland and/or sweet is from what I can tell a long process. Now in my late 30's, I'm a very adventurous eater, with a very short list of foods I genuinely dislike. This shift didn't happen until I was in college and was exposed to all kinds of foods. So I don't think you can chalk it up to if the parents don't eat it, the kid won't. It seems that a lot of kids - although probably not all - are pretty stubborn when it comes to trying something new. Because, as another poster put it, I don't think it's fair for other diners to have to witness the power struggle, we simply don't dine out at ethnic restaurants with the kiddo. We save those for when we're eating sans kids or we order in so we can have the power struggle at home and also have other offerings. This might be why you don't see many small kids at ethnic restaurants. Courteous parents, if you ask me.

      1. re: rockandroller1

        Sounds like my 22 year old daughter who eats pasta without sauce, plain lo mein, hamburger with ketchup only, but ranch dressing on everything including pizza (or buffalo wing sauce in a pinch).
        Her favorite sandwich>>mashed potatoes, cheese and mayo on a potato roll.

        My 13 year old daughter eats everything 'exotic' and has since being a toddler. The difference, she was born in China. I truly believe there is a difference between Nature and Nurture. Afterall, they have both been served the same meals at home and taken to the same restaurants.

        If the 22 yo won't eat what's being served at out table, then it's up to her to make her own. The only concessions my wife makes, is to keep some plain pasta aside before adding sauce, and the daughter gets matzo balls from the boiling water without the chicken soup--what could be more tasteless,

        As children, we ate everything, and were exposed to all available ethnic foods. I still don;t like Mexican or Japanese, but I've tried it (here and in those countries). Ieat other Asian, Latino, Continental and African cuisines.

        Maybe the kids will outgrow it.

      2. Because that is what they eat in non-ethnic restaurants too.

        Snarkiness aside, I do the same if the cuisine is new to my child. Yes, my three year old child had Tandoori chicken without much spicing the first time we went to an Indian restaurant. But I also made sure that he got to try all of the other dishes that we ordered and I'll probably do the same thing the next few times we go. I always try to make sure there is one guaranteed item that he'll eat otherwise the dining experience could be ruined due to hunger, boredom, etc.

        What is the number? You need to try something 9 times in order to develop a taste for it? Kids have a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to food because all of it is new. Ethnic foods would, I assume, would be even harder due because it would have such a radically different flavor profile than what most US children are used to.

        Oh, and one more thing - it's not always about the food with kids - often food is an area where they can assert their own power -somethimes it doesn't matter if they actually like something or not - they just want to assert their dominance by refusing it. I prefer to avoid any potential power struggles when in public - it's simply not fair to the other diners.

        1. To be honest, I don't see families at ethnic restaurants outside of the Accepted Three (Italian, Chinese, and Mexican) in my area. There's a little Indian place I frequent and in the seven or eight years I've been going there I have never seen one child. I saw a couple of kids in the Vietnamese restaurant but they turned out to be the owner's kids. Outside of major cities the majority are not foodies and they consider a place like Olive Garden or PF Chang's exotic cuisine. If the parents aren't going to eat it, the kids sure won't either.

          3 Replies
          1. re: MandalayVA

            This might be heresy on chowhound but you also have to realize that chow-worthiness is no longer the only criteria when dining with kids.

            In my particular case, I really have simply stopped visiting some of my favorite restaurants simply because of TIME. I love, love, love Ethiopian food and just assumed that it would be a very easy cuisine to introduce my child to. Wrong, wrong, wrong. My favorite Ethiopian place simply takes way too long. 2 hours for dinner with a 3 year old? Not fun, not acceptable, not going to do it. The best Thai in my town? Husband and wife team and everything is from scratch and they don't start cooking until you order. It's a great place to take a friend you haven't seen in a long time, it's the worst place in the world to take a toddler.

            The 'big three' are popular because they can be fast - orders can be expedited, or you can just decide to order simply and know you'll be out the door soon.

            Oh, and showing up early thinking that you'll get served faster? Often you run into issues with some food not being ready yet or prepped yet and you're stuck at the restaurant even longer.

            1. re: sebetti

              Yeah, how long the entire experience takes is a big factor if you have young kids.

              1. re: sebetti

                Toddlers and smaller children, yes, I agree that it's a lot to expect them to sit and be well-behaved, much less like the food. But what about older children? I don't even see teenagers in the places I cited--the kids I referred to at the Vietnamese place looked to be young teens.

            2. I'm not sure I agree with your premise. Maybe parents and kids in your circle are like that,
              but you are reducing 300,000,000 people down to one flawed idea.

              1 Reply
              1. re: bbqboy

                Considering the numerous threads about non-Chowhounds around here why wouldn't you agree? Kids have to be exposed to the cuisines. My love of ethnic food was a direct response to a foods-of-the-world project my fifth grade class did--before then the only ethnic cuisine in my house was Italian. I would have never been taken to an Indian or Greek or Japanese or Korean place by my parents.

              2. OP said "It is a very common thing in the US, for parents to assume that kids cannot eat a lot of the ethnic dishes. "

                the reality is that parents know their own child and know that they will not eat a lot of ethnic food, especially if it is being presented to them for the first time. Who wants to share that particular restaurant experience? Not me.

                1 Reply
                1. re: laliz

                  One way to get around that is to try a place where the table will have a variety of dishes on it. In the past week we've taken our five-year-old twins for dim sum and Ethiopian food -- both repeat visits. We've found that if we give them enough choices, they'll find something they actually like.

                  Similarly, we've taken them to an AYCE sushi place, where they had a great time.

                2. That's not my experience. When we take our kids to new types of restaurants, I do try to guide them to dishes that they're inclined to like, and to items that they've never eaten before. But I've never even offered them an "American" item like a grilled chicken breast at an ethnic restaurant. For example, when we went out to a Greek restaurant recently (which we basically have none of in our city, so we only get Greek food when we visit my folks), my 10yo daughter had spanikopita, which she's had once or twice, but she tried all the appetizers.

                  Of the people I know who go to ethnic restaurants, they all take their kids, and the kids are pretty good about eating the various ethnic stuff. I've never seen any of them get something like grilled chicken breast. That being said, a bunch of our friends are Asian, so their kids are probably more used to having more than just the customary American food. The parents of one of my daughter's friends love having her over for meals, because they're Chinese, and she likes their Chinese food more than their own daughter does!

                  The types that I know whose kids wouldn't be so interested in ethnic food, the parents don't go out for ethnic food themselves. Following the tradition of my father, a meat and potatoes guy from Iowa who encouraged his kids to try EVERYTHING, I've taken my kids' friends out for stuff like middle eastern and dim sum. While they weren't totally gung ho, they all ate at least some of the food, and at least pretended like they were glad to be taken to a different kind of restaurant.

                  1. Why is this titled "In America"?

                    It's a very common thing for parents to assume that their children will not like food that is not familiar to them, not just in the US. I teach at an international school and the Korean kids aren't bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their cute little lunch boxes, you know? The Indian kids are eating curry, the American kids are eating sandwiches, etc.

                    Going out is the same thing. I took a Norwegian kid to a chain Mexican restaurant back in the States and he ordered a hamburger with no bun.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: lulubelle

                      You are talking about kids' lunch boxes. I specifically ask about eating at an ethnic restaurant with kids. Based on my experience growing up in Asia, this seems to be a very American phenomenon.

                      Lots of parents here will order a grilled chicken breast dish for kids when they go to a Thai/Chinese/Mexican/Korean etc. restaurant. Yes sometimes they already know the kid will not eat anything else, but often they just assume kids won't eat the same thing they are eating because it's "exotic", when such notion hasn't even developed in a very young child...the notion of "exotic" only develops when you feed the child same thing over and over again.

                      Foreign cuisine restaurants in Asia don't seem to have the equivalent of this grilled chicken breast dish that exists just for kids, in case they find what they are eating "too exotic".

                      1. re: Dio Seijuro

                        It's not just school lunches, I can also say the same thing about students eating in restaurants on class trips. I've traveled with students all over (in particular in Asia as that is where I also live) and they are generally very hesitant to try food outside of their comfort zones. One of my student traveled for a week carting around a suitcase full of cup noodle so that she would not have to try food she did not know. (I also had a American student travel to Japan carrying several pounds of peanut M&Ms for the same reason).I have seen parents, American and Asian, order food without sauce in French restaurants because their children either did not or would not eat anything but plain meat.

                    2. I think "American" kids are raised differently than Asian kids (or in my case, kids of Asian immigrants). The concept of being "picky" was just not tolerated in my family-- you ate what was put in front of you or you didn't eat at all. Or you got punished for being a pain in the a$$, AND you didn't get anything to eat. Not a good way to raise a child in general, but there was no battle at the dinner table every day.

                      The American cliche is "the squeaky wheel gets the grease". The Asian corollary is "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down". In our family (which was admittedly rather dysfunctional), we just kept our heads down and ate whatever we were given, ethnic/unfamiliar or not.

                      1. I need to clarify some things. When I started the topic I had in mind very young kids (4~8), who are not doing the ordering, who probably don't have a preference either way, and in situations where they haven't had the food before. In this case, I see a lot of American parents having the mindset that many ethnic foods are "not for kids". It's often based on notions such as exoticness and safety in the parent's mind, not exactly based on the child's taste. I feel like this is a cultural, rather than universal, phenomenon.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Dio Seijuro

                          I would not describe the 4-year-olds I know as people who "don't have a preference either way." They most certainly have preferences. One kid is very partial to platanos maduros and short ribs, which seems pretty adventurous to me. But he also has a meltdown if there's a scallion anywhere near his food. Go figure.

                          1. re: Dio Seijuro

                            Completely agree with small h. Very young kids DO have a preference, and often very strong ones. I just think you are not only wrong, but coming from a really underinformed viewpoint of what it's like to be a parent to a child who is very picky.

                            You don't see the Asian kids doing it in Asia because maybe there's no Applebee's there serving up "American favorites" like bacon cheeseburgers and potato skins. Or else you might see the same thing in other countries.

                            I could not name any parents I know who partake of ethnic foods who think that any ethnicity's food is "not for kids." I have never, ever heard of anyone describing anything remotely like that. They order what they know the child will eat, without tears or a fuss or a fight, to save problems at the restaurant and keep the peace throughout the meal. It doesn't mean they aren't encouraging them to try different dishes or to sample what others have, but as a reformed extremely picky eater myself, placing a dish of unknown cuisine in front of me would have resulted in an unpleasant tantrum from which I would not recover the entire meal, and would result in a) me not eating anything at all that meal, and crying the whole time we were in the restaurant or b) them having to order a 2nd, more acceptable food for me at additional cost, and throwing the first dish away or having to take it home for someone to eat later. We certainly never had the money to go around ordering extra food that you knew someone wasn't going to eat, so you order for the child what you know the child will eat, as the point of the meal is eating food together, not having a battle of wills.

                          2. I have two toddlers, and it's hard to know what to order. Sometimes I can take them into a taqueria or similar place, get them a quesadilla or something plain to keep them quiet while the adults eat, and they'll want to do nothing but eat our tripe tacos and hot salsas. Other times, I get them a taco and they refuse it. Reverse psychology(order them something plain, then give them my more exotic choice) seems to work best, but has far from a 100% hit rate.

                            1. Interesting question. My daughter WON'T eat food with much flavor. She is required to take a "no thank you" bite of everything unless it is really spicy. If she doesn't like it, she doesn't have to eat it, period. I'm not going down that street.

                              I was the same way as a child and now I have a very adventurous palate. With the exception of organ meats, there is very little I won't try, and I love many different types of ethnic cuisine. DH and I always search out where the people native to a particular culture eat so we can get the real thing.

                              1. Kids are all different, parents are all different, and kids' tastes change and develop over time. We always have taken our child to ethnic restaurants and insisted she eat along with us. Ethnic eateries also tend to be more tolerant of small children, no small bonus.

                                The first rule for us is - You may ask to taste anything at all on the table. If you like it, please have some. Our next tactic is to take what we know our daughter likes and expand on it. Noodles are "in" right now? Great! Then you can have the Dan Dan Noodles in a much less spicy version. Some of the Korean food looks too odd? Okay, try the fish cakes. You like fish, right?

                                Happy accidents have worked in our favor, too. Any kind of Asian dumpling has always been good but NO dipping sauce must ever touch them. Recently, the very last dumpling on the plate had sauce accidentally spilled on it. The kid wanted that dumpling so badly she sucked it up and ate it. Surprise! Dipping sauce tastes really, really good.

                                Tastes change from day to day at this age. One day hot salsa is awesome. The next, no salsa at all. You give have to keep presenting the food. And it really helps if the child sees you enjoying your delicious meal without making a big fuss.

                                1. Beats me! I think in many cases it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. My kids were taken to Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, you name it, restaurants from the day they could sit up and eat something that wasn't breast milk (well, actually they went before that, but didn't parktake ;-) and they've NEVER lost their adventuresome palate. I cannot think of single food aside from raw oysters that they don't eat and--in most cases--relish.

                                  My younger daughter had--at her request--her 8th birthday celebration at a sushi restaurant. My older daughter loved Middle Eastern food from the age where she still routinely knocked over her drinks. <g> (remembering one little Middle Eastern hole-in-the-wall where the one waitress cheerfully and without the slightest hesitation replaced THREE glasses of milk...)

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Beckyleach

                                    Agreed. My kids are two, and 10 months old, and they eat everything (knock wood). Mexican, Sushi (we limit them to cooked stuff), Thai, Greek, whatever. Their favorite meal at home is gumbo.

                                    Watching my 10 month old eat a california roll is hysterical. He disassembles it, and eats each part separately, winding up covered head to toe in the sticky rice.

                                    At a Greek restaurant, I foolishly told my 2 year old that she wouldn't like the skordalia she was reaching for. She then ate it by the handful! I got a stomach ache just watching her, but she was fine.

                                    Kids eat what they are given. :)

                                    1. re: Beckyleach

                                      I almost forgot sushi. The 7-year-old begs for it and it's been her special birthday treat for years. The only one she hasn't liked so far is squid and that's mostly because it's too hard to eat with missing teeth. I love watching the itamae's reactions when they see a small kid appreciating their food.

                                      Even so, we still get our chicken nugget and fries days, too. 'S alright. It's all good.