The first thing 9-year-old Peter Ericson did after settling into his chair at Yosaku in Portland was ask about the chopsticks. He’d never used them before, so a lesson in how to hold them followed.

Ever had sushi, Peter? “I’ve already tried it, I think,” he replied.

His mother laughed. “You have not,” she said.

When a bowl of miso soup arrived, his eyes grew big. “Oh, what’s that?” he said, as he pointed to a piece of seaweed floating in the soup.

Peter, like a lot of children, can be a challenge when his family goes out to a restaurant and it’s time to order. His mother, a page designer at the Press Herald, wants him to try new things, and maybe sneak in something green once in a while. But Peter is the very definition of a picky eater. He likes what he likes. He is rail thin, even though chocolate is his favorite food group.

Children like Peter often have limited options when they go out to eat, unless they order off the adult menu. But a few Maine restaurants are trying to up their game, offering more on kids’ menus than the usual dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders and mac-and-cheese. Some chefs say they want to be sure kids have healthy choices, and think it’s important that parents expose their children to unfamiliar foods. Others say they give children lots of options so they’ll be more likely to find something they like.

At Provender Kitchen + Bar in Ellsworth, even infants have their own menu. Chef/owner Daron Goldstein, parent of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, keeps his kitchen stocked with Earth’s Best organic infant formula and jarred baby food. “It’s good just to have on hand,” Goldstein said. “It shows we’re thinking about the guest and that we’ve put a lot of thought into what the kids are eating as well.”

Goldstein also has a two-course menu for older children, which he serves on kid-sized plates with kid-friendly flatware. It includes New England clam chowder, and organic strawberry yogurt is offered as an alternative to French fries.

Kids eating at Gather in Yarmouth can order a house-made blueberry soda, right, and pasta with butter and cheese. There’s also the tofu taco (background), and a margherita pizza (foreground) from the regular menu that can be be prepared without the basil. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

IF YOU BUILD A GOOD KIDS MENU, THEY WILL COME

Katie Pierce, a cook who has worked at David’s 388 and CVC Catering in South Portland, is living in Georgia because her husband is stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, but she looks forward to returning to Maine for the summer so she can take her two boys, ages 4 and 6, back to Gather in Yarmouth. Gather not only has a creative menu for children age 10 and under, but also a play area stocked with wooden toys, books and games.

Pierce says her sons have tried and loved the restaurant’s fish nuggets and chicken pot pie. She likes that carrot sticks sub in for fries and chips, and that brunch comes in kid-sized portions. One of Pierce’s favorite things is that the menu changes a few times a year, just like an adult menu. “For a while they had a hot dog, but it was a local hot dog,” she said. “It was more like sausage.”

Matt Chappell, owner of Gather, says the key to a successful children’s menu is finding the right balance between what a kid wants to eat and what their parents wish they would eat.

“What we’ve learned is a couple of things: Children are definitely picky eaters,” Chappell said. “I’m talking about younger kids here – 2 to 6, in that range. Once you get above that, they’re usually ordering from the adult menu. But in that younger crowd, they don’t want color and they don’t want flavors that are going to be too extreme. That’s why our noodles with butter and cheese is one of the better sellers. We’ve tried lots of different things, and of course the chef wants to put a twist on things, so he’ll put a different kind of cheese in the mac-and-cheese, and the kids will say ‘Well, this doesn’t taste like what I have at home.’ ”

Fish sticks do well. The patty melt come on grilled foccaccia, and the sodas are made in house and served in a Mason jar. The chef has learned not to put basil on the margherita pizza – many chefs and parents interviewed for this story mentioned that kids do not like green things on their pizza – and to leave the peas out of the chicken pot pie.

Sometimes foods flop. The PB&J sushi roll was a simple peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, rolled up and cut it into pieces, sushi style.

“I think we sold two or three of those over the course of the three months we had it on the menu,” Chappell said. “A great example of a chef wanting to be playful and different with it, but kids not responding because they want familiar.”

The jury is still out on Gather’s tofu taco for kids. “It does OK, but I think we may have to go to a quesadilla of some sort,” Chappell said.

JUST ONE BITE

Some parents insist that their kids order from the adult menu, perhaps splitting an adult-sized portion with a sibling. Lucy Gould’s parents, Chris and Paige Gould, owners of Central Provisions and Tipo in Portland, allow their almost-3-year-old to eat from adult menus, but they also appreciate the value of a good kids’ menu. “It’s fantastic to have,” Paige Gould said. “It’s great for us to go to a place and we know that there’s a sure-fire something that my kid will eat.”

The Goulds have instituted a “one-bite rule” that helps at restaurants. Lucy has to at least try the food on her plate, her mother said, “and you don’t have to eat more if you don’t like it.”

This is how Lucy discovered that she liked purple cauliflower, and now she’s upset that there are no purple mushrooms. She likes to eat caviar on potato chips (although she’s only done this twice). And she lets her chef dad feed her (with chopsticks) the lamb khao soi at The Honey Paw in Portland.

But sometimes the one-bite rule doesn’t work, even if it’s a bite of chocolate cake.

“When it comes to food, kids are smart, and they realize when they’re young that what they put in their mouths is one of the few things they can assert themselves with,” Gould said.

PETER AND THE BENTO BOAT

Peter, who has dined from the kids’ menu at Gather many times, likes tofu. So we hoped he’d try the Youth Bento Box or Youth Sushi Set at Yosaku. Both options, for children 12 and under, have been on the menu for more than 15 years, according to Ram Tray, who works behind the bar and has fed both to his own children and to kids he coaches in soccer.

The kids tofu taco with Heiwa tofu from Rockport is an option on Gather’s kids menu. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“We have a lot of families with kids come in,” he said.

When it comes to Japanese food, Tray said, most kids “can’t get their heads wrapped around” things like eel. But the youth meals use ingredients such as a sweet teriyaki sauce to entice children to at least try the food. That might not work with Peter, who, his mother said, is “suspicious of sauce.”

The dinners are bargains at $

7 each, so we ordered both. The bento box came with miso soup, rice and dessert, and Peter got to choose among teppan beef or chicken, tempura (shrimp or chicken) or chicken katsu. He likes shrimp, so he went with the tempura shrimp.

 

The sushi set also came with miso soup and dessert, also tamago and inari nigiri, and a California roll. Tamago nigiri is an omelet draped over sushi rice; inari nigiri is a tofu pocket filled with sweetened sushi rice. We also bought him an inari roll, hoping to improve the odds of finding something that he would eat. All of it is cooked, so kids don’t have to confront their feelings about eating raw fish.

Tray said dessert is usually mochi ice cream, but Peter received several colorful containers – they looked like containers of coffee creamer – filled with different flavors of gelatin.

Despite the seaweed floating in his soup, Peter slurped down perhaps a third of the bowl before quitting. Asked if he liked it, he shook his head no and said “Not my favorite.” He went back to drinking his Pepsi and playing with his Kindle until the rest of the food arrived. Then he went straight for the dessert, licking one of the small containers clean before declaring “This is very, very good.”

Peter’s mom convinced him to try the inari roll, which he pronounced “good, not the greatest.” He tilted his head back and lowered a long tempura shrimp into his mouth, but he didn’t finish it. He said he didn’t like the sauce drizzled on it.

The bento box was shaped like a boat, and Peter spent much of his time playing with it, rolling it up and down as if it were riding invisible ocean waves. “I really love this boat,” he said.

Not so much the food. His mother got him to eat another bite of rice, but he wouldn’t go for a second bite. Perhaps he just wasn’t hungry.

Or perhaps just not for a California roll. By now Peter had eaten all the gelatin, doing a fine impression of an anteater as he licked each packet clean with his long tongue. Our amused server brought him more, but his mother made him set them aside.

“You’ve got to eat something,” she said. “Decide what you want to eat.”

Cafe Miranda in Rockland has an extensive kids’ menu, including entrees like steamed shrimp and rice noodles. The staff will also cook to order to please a child – “pretty much anything else we can pull off,” owner Kerry Altiero says. Photo courtesy Kerry Altiero Photo courtesy of Kerry Altiero

OCTOPUS CONNOISSEUR

Letting the child decide for himself worked for Justin and Danielle Walker, owners of Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick, whose son Jackson has always been allowed to order whatever he wants, from either kids’ or adult menus. It made him an adventurous eater. He doesn’t care much for mac-and-cheese, and his favorite food is octopus. The Walkers let their experience with their son inform the kids’ options at their new restaurant.

Instead of a bread basket to start, tables with children get little Mason jars filled with asparagus, carrots and green beans. That way they don’t fill up with bread before their meal has arrived.

“I’ve seen it a million times – a bunch of bread, a glass of milk, and they’re done,” Danielle Walker said.

The children’s menu includes items such as chicken fried in gluten-free chickpea flour, and a Little Gem salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and shaved carrots in different colors. Kid-friendly foods are also sprinkled around the adult menu, including chicken or beef kabobs and foil-wrapped potatoes roasted in coals, campfire style.

If none of that is appealing, the Walkers tell their servers to find out what children at their tables like, and the kitchen will cook it for them.

Kerry Altiero, owner of Cafe Miranda in Rockland, wholeheartedly agrees with that philosophy. He has created an extensive kids’ menu, but makes it clear he will have his staff cook anything to please a child. He views them as potential future customers. And he views the kids’ menu as “a guidebook to make them feel secure.”

“The idea of a hierarchy in terms of customers or food, it really doesn’t exist in my head,” Altiero said. “A kid’s a customer that’s spending their money, and I want their business. And I want to respect them like anybody else. So we’ll do all those things on the kids’ menu and pretty much anything else we can pull off.”

Altiero’s kids’ menu includes favorites such as burgers, hot dogs, mac-and-cheese, and cheese pizza, but he also offers steamed shrimp and rice noodles, and black beans and rice. His “Satisfy the Parents” salad can be ordered with French fry croutons. (That’s how he got his own son, 24, to eat salad when he was 12, “and now he eats anything.”) “Standard” sodas are available, but also “good sodas” that contain no high-fructose corn syrup, such as Boylan Creamy Red Birch Beer or Old Soaker Root Beer.

Peter would probably like the steamed shrimp and noodles at Cafe Miranda. The sauce is on the side.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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