Why Can't Adults Order From The Kids Menu?

May 25, 2015

Kids’ menus: they’re salty, sweet, greasy, and more appropriately portioned than lots of meals served to adults at casual restaurants. So, why the age restrictions? What stops adults from just ordering the small stuff they crave?

This question came in from Rachel Kirby in Nashville, Tennessee for Marketplace's “I’ve Always Wondered” series, a similar project to our local WYSO Curious series.

“I have always wondered why adults aren’t allowed to order off the kids menu at a restaurant,” Kirby says. And she can’t be the only one who’s thought about it. Kirby is 33, but she says she tries to order from the kid’s menu pretty often. She likes the smaller portions, and doesn’t feel like it’s fair that adults are restricted from ordering off the 12-and-under menu in more than a few establishments.

Fast food restaurants typically don’t check—but she says she has been shut down before, mostly at sit-down restaurants.

So, I decide to give it a try myself. First stop, Young’s Jersey Dairy, a super popular ice cream shop and diner outside Yellow Springs. I bring two friends for cover—10-year-old Malcolm Blunt and 11-year-old Felix Dakota. They order first.

“We want a cheeseburger. Both of us want the same thing,” Felix says.

“And we’re gonna chew at the same time and finish at the same time,” says Malcolm.

“And take the same size bites,” says Felix.

Cuteness distraction in full operation, I order a kid sized milkshake—and it’s a success. The server says they let adults get kids stuff all time.

I try a few other places and it turns out from that mini-hot dog to the tiny pizza, yep, I can order them. But not everywhere is so laid-back: Local spots like Peach’s Bar and Grill and TJ Chump’s say no to the adult-kids' meals, or at least tack on a dollar surcharge, and various friends share anecdotes of kids’-menu rejection experiences.

Kendall Goodrich, chair of the marketing department at the Wright State University business school, isn’t surprised.  

“If everyone ordered off of this kids menu then they wouldn’t make any money,” says Goodrich. He says kids menus are mainly a way to get families through the door. “If someone has small kids, you get the kid in at the lower price and what they’re hoping is that they’ll get the adults to pay full price.”

But Goodrich says some restaurants don’t want to lose loyal customers by turning them down, either. It all depends on company policies, the owner’s personal style. “It might even go back to their upbringing where they had a conservative rules-based background or more open type of environment.”

So they might let you do it, but it’s discouraged.

My eleven-year-old pal Felix might not want to hear that.   

“I’m probably gonna be getting kids meals for the rest of my life,” Felix says. “Because they’re so simple, and then in the adults one they’re just like, what do you mean by ravioli with pastella and fettuccini?”

Malcolm agrees: “Ugh, that sounds gross.”

The children say: tenders and fries forever. But once they’re over 12...they’ll just have to try their luck.