Ordering Off the Kids’ Menu

Dear Helena,

I went to a Mexican restaurant where the burritos are enormous. I knew if I ordered the regular size I’d end up taking two-thirds of it home, so I decided to order a burrito off the kids’ menu. My friend was embarrassed and refused to let me do it. But I have a small appetite and I don’t see why I should pay full price for a meal I’m not going to finish. Is it OK to order off the kids’ menu? If not, what’s the best way to get a small portion? —Birdlike Appetite

Dear Birdlike Appetite,

Lumberjacks may welcome giant portions, but many of us don’t. If you’re on a diet, you don’t relish the temptation to overeat. If you’re ecoconscious, you know that food consumes energy and resources in its production, so you’re reluctant to waste it. It’s not always convenient to take a doggy bag. And now that we’re in the grip of a recession, most of us would like to spend less on dining out.

Unless the menu says otherwise, you can order from the kids’ menu. The restaurants I called all said they would allow it. Chet Wryly, kitchen manager at Chenery Park in San Francisco, says: “We wouldn’t like everyone to do it, but if someone wanted to have a hamburger as an appetizer—the kids’ hamburger is really small—I don’t see why not.” Kevin Davis, chef and co-owner of Steelhead Diner in Seattle, says he’s happy to whip up a grilled cheese for the odd vendor from neighboring Pike Place Market. But, he says, “I wouldn’t want to let that get out much. ... If everyone ate off the kids’ menu, the restaurant wouldn’t make a profit.”

In other words, most restaurants will allow you to order a Lilliputian burger or a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, begrudgingly. The profit margin on the kids’ menu is usually tiny.

Of course, unless the menu states a minimum charge per diner, you’re not obliged to spend big in a restaurant (especially if other diners at your table are ordering plenty). As I’ve said before, it’s fine for two diners to split a salad and drink water. Smart restaurants want to make you happy so they can get your repeat business.

But by ordering off the kids’ menu you’re doing yourself a disservice. Most kids’ menus consist of bland fare like mac ’n’ cheese and chicken fingers. They may offer kid-size portions of one or two adult dishes, but usually the food is dumbed-down for childish palates. A kiddy burrito will likely come without salsa, guacamole, and all the rest—in other words, without all the stuff that makes a burrito good.

If you want a little person’s portion, you don’t have to infantilize yourself. Restaurants that offer small plates or tapas have been trendy for a few years now. Pick one of those, or look for a place that offers half sizes. The Steelhead Diner, for instance, offers several entrées in two sizes. “Sixty percent of the time people go for the half portion,” Davis says.

If half portions aren’t on offer, don’t be afraid to ask for one. The worst that can happen is the server will say no. Or if your companion is a nibbler too, you can split a dish with him or her. You can also order an appetizer for an entrée, or make a dinner out of sides. That’s what Osha Groetz of Candle Café in New York advocates: “We have 20 different sides. You can order one or two or three sides. … That’s cost-effective and healthier than the kids’ choices.”

If you choose one of these options, you’ll get a dainty dinner, and the server won’t humiliate you by asking if you want crayons with it.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.