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Photo: Candis Spraul on Flickr

We all think of today’s children’s menus as consisting of chicken nuggets with a side of tater tots, washed down with a box of crayons to fill in a spaceship-themed connect-the-dots. And we’d be mostly correct in these assumptions: generally speaking, kiddie menus are blitzed with fried foods that are high in fat and devoid of any sort of nutrition. Children love their mild flavors delivered via a load of lipids. Parents love their simplicity and cost. Everyone goes home happy, right? But it wasn’t always this way.

A recent Slate article examines the history of the children’s menu, tracing its roots to the mid-1800s and following it all the way to its present – pitiful – state. What becomes apparent in its evolution is a constant link to the modern views of society. For example, nutrition for children in the late 19th century revolved around the text The Care and Feeding of Children, which preached the avoidance of foods like pork and fruit, citing beliefs that these items caused sickness. Some years later, Prohibition forced the hospitality industry to cater to young diners, with the thought that a focus on this untapped market could offset lost liquor revenue. Children were suddenly openly welcomed into restaurants (a novel concept) with a list of options to call their very own — the beginnings of the “kid's menu” as we know it today.

Just how did the ever-colorful design and contents of today’s children’s menu originate? With laissez-faire approaches to children’s diets in the post-war era, for one, and an aggressive and fast-moving processed foods advertising campaign, for another. In an age where every television commercial break features an artificial food or beverage product endorsed by a celebrity, children’s menus have now conformed to reflect as much: a mish-mash of “cost-effective, junked-up, dumbed-down foods.”

So, what’s next for a menu whose make-up has been guided by print, law and media through the years? As awareness is raised for countless initiatives aimed at curbing rates of childhood obesity and promoting healthy school lunches, chains like Applebee’s and Red Lobster have been quick to “re-do” their children’s menus by throwing on items such as broccoli and spinach — in addition to existing, nutrition-free selections, that is. If history can act as an indication of the future, however, much more drastic changes lie ahead.

Read these stories about kids' food on Food Republic: