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12-year-old chef: Get your kids out of the ‘kids’ menu trap’ 

May 6, 2013 at 2:18 PM ET

haile thomas
Charmaine Thomas
Haile Thomas, 12, cooks up shrimp lettuce wraps-- a healthy, delicious alternative to the kinds of items found on most kids' menus.

Haile Thomas is a young chefwho has cooked for the likes of Michelle Obama and has partnered with Hyatt Hotels & Resorts to develop healthy menu items for kids. Here, she writes about why she thinks children shouldn’t get acclimated to standard kids’ menu fare, and also offers up a flavorful, healthy dish that they are sure to love.

Have you ever noticed how often the terms “kid-friendly” or “kids’ menu” are used on standard menus? It made me wonder why meals sold and served to kids have to be “kid-friendly”? Especially since it seems to mean the food is dipped in sugar, covered in cheese sauce, deep-fried and requires no utensils to eat.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese and I definitely enjoy a yummy dessert -- and who doesn’t love the occasional fried food? But having these types of items as kids’ menu choices sends the wrong message and causes us to become picky, limited and unhealthy eaters. Baby food is one thing, but when we get to the “kid” stage in life, shouldn’t it just be food?

When I started eating “grown-up” food, my mom served all kinds of delicious -- and yes, sometimes a little strange – Jamaican-style meals. Both my parents are from Jamaica and in our house, spices like curry and smoked paprika, herbs like thyme and scallions, and meats like oxtails and chicken feet were absolutely normal. I never got the memo that I was supposed to only be eating nuggets, tenders, fries, mac ‘n cheese, pizza and burgers. I’ve always ordered from the regular menu at restaurants, and we took home the leftovers from the huge portions.

The older I get, the more I reject this kids’ menu concept. Yes, it is cheaper; yes, the portions are smaller; but gosh, it is so very limited and often unhealthy. Thus began my journey to escape the kids’ menu trap, and what a journey of discovery it has been.

Now at 12 years old, I am a foodie for sure. I love to try foods from different cultures, and experiment and mix stuff up in the kitchen. It’s amazing what we kids often miss out on because of the generally accepted kids’ menu. Even though I don’t eat red meat very often, I still remember my first time tasting lamb and other favorites like hummus, tabbouleh, edamame, crab legs and even alligator. Those were all magical moments for my taste buds!

Luckily, I’ve come across some kids’ menus that are atypical, and it’s such a treat to order something new and delicious that shows the chef respects their younger diners and knows that we deserve variety and great quality food just like everyone else.

In my hometown of Tucson, Ariz., Acacia serves kids yummy grilled polenta-quinoa cakes and salmon dunkers. I worked with chef Albert Hall to create this delicious menu. Another memorable restaurant is Oleana in Boston, Mass., where chef Ana Sortun offers a unique kids’ menu featuring options like Vermont quail kebob with rice cake and pistachios. In addition, at any Hyatt Hotel in North America there is a kids’ menu that I helped create as well, offering all-natural beef, shaken chopped chicken salad and build-your-own tacos to name a few.

Want to make a flavorful, grown-up dish that your kids will love? Try my curry shrimp lettuce wraps, and tell us, have you got a recommendation of a place that serves up fun, fresh, flavorful, healthy and unique eats for kids? We’d love to hear about it!

shrimp
Charmaine Thomas

Curry shrimp lettuce wraps

serves 6

  • 1 pound fresh large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon lemon pepper seasoning
  • 1-tablespoon curry powder (I use Jamaican or Madras curry powder)
  • 1-teaspoon sea salt.
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic.
  • 2 stalks lemon thyme, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra vigin olive oil
  • ½ red onion sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 large stalk green onion, sliced
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Add seasonings and minced garlic to shrimp. Mix then let marinate for a few minutes. Add extra virgin olive oil to a nonstick pan and heat. Add shrimp and lemon thyme and cook for 2 minutes. Add red onions, cook another minute, and then add bell peppers and green onions. Stir and allow peppers to soften a bit, then add cilantro last. Cook another minute until shrimp is done. Add to butter lettuce cups. Enjoy!

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