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There has been a good deal of discussion, and indeed some ranting, here lately concerning children and dining.
From the hot topic of should fine dining restaurants be expected to even serve children to being inconvenienced by having to prepare the apparently gastronomically abhorrent breaded chicken tender.

Included in these discussions are the customary, expected and appropriate comments about teaching children to appreciate good food and castigations of parents who habitually capitulate to children’s preferences on a perverse level. As well as how professionals can or should entertain children in their establishments.

I find that some of the discussion hints at but doesn’t really acknowledge or address an underlying concept that is a particular pet subject matter of mine. One that falls under themes that are cultural, physiological, nutritional and psychological. (I won’t attempt to cover all of these themes in this one post, I’m sure you are relieved.)

I’ll try not to let this turn into a dissertation, but I consider it worthy of discussing and a bit of healthy debate. While I think that the topic is one that could find a home in almost any gathering of intelligent adults, I believe that it is particularly relevant to this group due to the fact we all harbor a love and respect of quality food as well as the fact that here there is no small number of people who are in the trenches and on the front lines of parenthood.

Beyond that, the concentration of passionate professionals— Who are an intrinsic part of setting the standard of what constitutes “good taste” in our society far beyond the concept of taste as one of the five senses and thereby occupy the position of being if not the architects then the masons for the foundation of our culture— adds a (pardon the culinary reference) depth of flavor that might be lacking in a different venue.

The big statement: Children are not little people, smaller versions of grown-ups or the same as adults just lacking experience. They are physically, chemically and biologically by definition immature i.e. not fully formed. They lack not just stature and experience but hormones, nerve endings and synapses that make up a fully formed human being.

From this statement I extrapolate that children are to be held to a different set of standards than those to which we hold adults. Furthermore, they must be guided through virtually all aspects of life due to the deficiencies that are fundamental to their nature. This is a given in our society. Or is it really?

Do we actually hold true to this belief or do we only trot out “different standards” when we are in the arena of punitive juvenile law, statutory rape, consumption of alcohol and nicotine or the right to vote?

In so far as children’s ability to discern, let alone enjoy the same taste sensation as adults I offer this link (and since I am techno challenged I can only hope it appears somewhere near this statement) not as a definitive all inclusive reference but merely a jumping off point for the science of the sense of taste in relation to not only differences between individual adults and individual children but the differences between adults in general in relation to children in general as well.

To believe that children are at all times “finicky” or “spoiled” because they have not been taught to appreciate some particular food item or that they simply have not been properly exposed to a broad palate is off base. Their taste buds are physically different. And depending on what age the child is (and the individual child) they have more taste buds in their mouths than adults do (on the inside of their cheeks and the roof of their mouths) leading to a heightened sense of taste peculiar to their genetic taste disposition.

My understanding is that bitterness sensitivity is so common in children to the point of being the norm. The bitterness “factor” is what is causing all of this research in hopes that we can find ways to get the kids to choose more veggies. Vegetables are usually the harbingers of bitter flavor.

Given the physical state of children’s taste receptors, teaching children to like something (even if it is good for them and perfectly prepared) is not truly possible in all instances. In fact some children with acute bitterness sensors would find certain foods not just yucky tasting, but so unpleasant as to be painful to taste. Think of the stuff you paint on the fingers of nail bitters.

Eventually, their taste buds develop and they loose some of the “extra ones” as they mature, and their tastes change.

The point here is that children that suddenly decide that they like turnip greens didn’t do so because they finally ate enough of them so that they trained their taste buds, their taste buds naturally matured. Which is something all of our taste buds do until they begin to atrophy with age and you end up eating nursing home food and think it is quite yummy.

For the most part, children simply do not have the same capacity to enjoy all types of “adult” food as we do. Not because their taste buds haven’t been properly educated but because their taste buds are physically different. There will always be exceptions to the rule but look at your own children (who are obviously not eating things out of a box with a dancing oven mitt on it) and see where their “better educated than most of their friends” taste buds lean; probably toward healthier, better prepared, fresh ingredient items of the same ilk.

Given all of that, it is conceivable to concluded that certain flavors aren’t just wasted on children, but it boarders on cruel to ask them to eat certain foods. Yes, their nutritional needs must be met, but even their nutritional needs aren’t the same as ours. They need natural fats in their diets in amounts that would be detrimental to an adult, even into the teenaged years. (I have an anorexic Goddaughter and have learned far more than I ever wanted to know about nutrition and mental health from that experience.)

That mild tasting breaded chicken tender might be considered bland and lacking to adult taste receptors, but a child’s taste receptors will actually detect subtle flavors and nuances that yours are incapable of registering. Unfortunately, due to their nature, they lack the capacity to articulate the sensation or even be cognizant of the fact that food can be and should be appreciated on such a level.

So for the Chef who chooses to make a fine dining version of buttered noodles and breaded chicken tenders for their patrons who are young, you didn’t stoop to making something beneath you. You simply created a meal that only a “super taster” could enjoy, a meal that is the pinnacle of a different set of standards.

We need children’s menu items in fine dining.

(The addictive properties of absolute junk food, marketing strategies by the junk food industry and how they are killing our society, is reserved for a post of its own.)

Now here comes the social implications of The big statement and how those implications relate to how excluding children from the dining room can be good for the child and society in general:

Children should be educated on a vast array of subject matter including life in general, but at appropriate times and at appropriate stages of development that vary from child to child and family to family.
Children also need boundaries and not just the kind that are about not playing in the middle of the street and being home by a certain time.

Here is where I will probably part ways with the crowd:

To insist that children should be allowed entry into any and every social setting so long as it isn’t adult (in the wink, wink, nudge, nudge sense of the word adult) just because it might be, or even would be an educational experience is wrong.

Often (no not always, there are exceptions), the children will not remotely enjoy the experience and beyond that they will learn absolutely nothing more than their parents chose to drag them somewhere where they were terribly bored and uncomfortable. (And yes there are a great many activities that children should participate in that are “boring” and cause them discomfort) This perception comes from the limited capacity of children to process information and put it in its appropriate context. The biggest, and often, the only lesson learned is that they (the children) are entitled to go virtually anywhere and experience virtually anything in the name of broadening their horizons.

Entitled to an adult experience; rushed through childhood so that a parent can boast of the precocious capabilities of their wunderkind— the moral of the story being that the only distinction between a child and an adult is the ability to vote, choose sexual partners and have a glass of wine or a cigar when you choose.

In our rush to educate them, we steal something. We make it seem (to their limited understanding and cognitive abilities) that crossing the threshold into adulthood is about what we do with our bodies not our minds. All children long to cross that threshold, it is part of the human experience. If that threshold is about the body then any 13 year old can choose to step across.
Take a look around, they are doing just that. And no, they aren’t all poor and uneducated. I just had to buy a pregnancy test for a friend of my daughter. She was too afraid to talk to her well to do, well educated parents. Her GPA is great and she takes part in all the extracurricular activities that all of the other EIGHTH GRADE kids do. Thank God it was negative.

Society as a whole should take steps to change the perception of what constitutes passage into adult hood. We should all help build clear boundaries separating the children from the adults. Not just because some people wish to dine away from children, but because a clear delineation would benefit children in profound ways.

It also seems that the style and taste makers are in a unique position to bring about more change. No, not every fine dinning restaurant should be “adult only” but support of such institutions and culinary rights of passage could have far reaching implications.

(Insert perfunctory discourse on the ceremonial nature of food across cultures.)

Do I think that fine dining and world class chefs can cure all social ills? Not at all. However, since it is clear that so many social fashions and customs (and the fall out from, both good and bad) come from the industry that it might be worth talking about.

Alright, as I mentioned in a previous post I have been in the process of clearing out a heavily wooded acre or so of my yard, armed with just a few hand tools. I have obviously had entirely too much time to gaze into my own belly button lint. The sad part is that I could go on and on and on. I have got to get out more J