7 steps to more healthful kids' meals

7 steps to more healthful kids' meals

How restaurants can meet increasing demand for nutritious kids' offerings

Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining [4], a company that has been at the forefront of restaurant nutrition since 1990. This series provides restaurant operators with information on industry-related nutrition topics. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation's Restaurant News.

Demand for more healthful kids’ meals is increasing. More than ever, parents are becoming educated about nutrition and demonstrating increasing commitment to higher quality nutritious foods.

“Feeding kids healthfully is not taking anything away from them but instead giving them the building materials they need, through nutritious foods, to grow and learn and live a full life. Vitality should be the birthright of every child,” said Dr. David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and an internationally recognized expert on nutrition and disease prevention and father of five.

Mimi's Cafe offers chicken and vegetables in a kids' menu item.

Restaurants are rising to the challenge and creating healthier kids’ menu choices that are appealing to kids and their parents through the Kids LiveWell program. Since it launched in July 2011, the program has attracted more than 130 restaurant brands comprised of almost 40,000 locations coast to coast.

Kids LiveWell was developed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in collaboration with Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians. “Working with restaurants on the Kids LiveWell program is one of my favorite parts of my job," said Ilana Shapiro, RD, a culinary dietitian at Healthy Dining. "I love to hear the excitement and dedication of participating restaurants. I sense that there is really a lot of momentum in the industry and that many chefs are working to increase the healthfulness of their kids’ menus.”

Here are seven steps any restaurants can take toward serving more healthful kids' meals.

Kids love color, so think about the rainbow when you offer kids a choice of fruits and vegetables. “Our research shows that Gen X moms, especially, continue to be highly motivated to increase their own and their family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables," said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of Produce for Better Health (PBH). "This creates a great opportunity for restaurants to please moms and their children by offering more fruits and vegetables that kids like.”

PBH research shows that kids’ favorite vegetables, as reported by Gen X moms, are broccoli, corn, green beans, carrots, potatoes, peas, salad/lettuce and spinach. Kids’ favorite fruits include apples, bananas, strawberries, grapes, oranges, pineapple, peaches and nectarines.

2. Add whole grains. Offer brown rice, quinoa and whole grain pastas, pizza crusts and breads to your menu of choices.

Whole grains in kids' meals was the second most popular trend for kids' meals, and the tenth most popular trend overall, according to the 2013 NRA survey of professional chefs. “We're pleased to see chefs recognize the importance of offering kids (and adults!) more whole grain choices," said Cynthia Harriman, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for the Whole Grains Council. "Now that more children are being introduced to the fuller, nuttier taste of whole grains in schools, it's a great time for restaurants to introduce more whole grains in their kids' meals. Whole grains are now becoming the norm.”

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Chick-fil-A offers kids grilled chicken nuggets and milk.
Tony Roma's offers kids a chicken taco.

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3. Add lean protein. Add more skinless chicken and turkey breast, lean beef, tofu, fish and seafood to your kids’ menu. Be creative with sauces and seasonings by trying fruit salsas, fruit juice marinades and low sodium teriyaki, BBQ or honey mustard sauces. Some kids like spicy and some like bland, so offer a choice when possible.

4. Add kid-sized portions of healthful beverages. Add fruit slices or berries for interest to pure water. Offer skim milk and 100-percent fruit juice. A six- to eight-ounce portion is perfect for kids.

Sodium can add up quickly, so be aware of products that add sodium, including processed meats, cheese, sauces and dressings. Look for lower sodium alternatives and use products sparingly if they're high in sodium. Also beware of garnishes: one half of a large pickle has about 300 mg. of sodium, and one tablespoon of ketchup or mustard has about 170 mg. of sodium. Download the ‘Cut the Sodium and Keep the Flavor’ toolkit for more tips.  
 
6.  Join the Kids LiveWell Program. The Kids LiveWell Program is a proactive, growing industry effort that provides restaurants with consultations with dietitians, a framework for offering healthful options and a marketing program to promote the Kids LiveWell choices through HealthyDiningFinder.com, Kids LiveWell apps, media outreach, Twitter parties, Mommy blogger sites and events, and other opportunities.

Try serving a variety of seasonal vegetables and flavorful whole grains to get kids excited about experimenting with their taste buds at your restaurant. Apply your culinary artistry and creativity to the presentation of kid friendly meals. Involve your young guests and their parents in designing new healthful menu choices. Explore your “adult” menu for choices that are healthy and might be also be enticing to kids, and promote those on your kids’ menu.  

Is your restaurant offering innovative and healthy kids’ meals? Share your tips and success with Anita Jones-Mueller [8], M.P.H., president of Healthy Dining. For more information on the Kids LiveWell and Healthy Dining Programs, contact [email protected] [9].