Editor's note: The following column is from Healthy Dining, 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.
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Health experts speaking at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) 2012 Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids National Leadership Summit  provided compelling evidence backing the urgency of the nation's fight to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.
"Health is a flavor issue, and that is what this conference is all about," emphasized Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RD, Director of Programs and Culinary Nutrition at the CIA. "As a nation, we will never make an impact on health and nutrition unless flavor is the driving force. Healthful food must be crave-able and delicious."
Fruits and vegetables: An opportunity for restaurants
Elizabeth Pivonka, PhD, RD, President and CEO of Produce for Better Health  (PBH), led first the ‘5 A Day for Better Health’ campaign more than 20 years ago and now heads up the ‘Fruits & Veggies — More Matters’ campaign. These programs represent the largest public-private fruit and vegetable nutrition education initiative, and they were developed to target primarily moms, the gatekeepers to family’s meals.
Pivonka presented research PBH conducted with moms in Gen X (i.e., born between 1965 and 1979) and Gen Y (i.e., born between 1980 and 1990).
“We know that both Gen X and Gen Y moms believe it is their role to increase their families’ consumption of fruits and vegetables. Gen X moms, especially, continue to be highly motivated to increase their own and their family’s consumption of fruits and vegetables,” explained Pivonka. “This creates a great opportunity for restaurants to please moms and their children by offering more fruits and vegetables that kids like.” (See chart: Moms report kids' top 10 favorite fruits and vegetables.')
The research, outlined in the State of the Plate: 2010 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables Report , reveals that the No. 1 reason moms want to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables is to "stay healthy." Other top reasons include "like the taste," "to feel well," "to prevent weight gain," "to lose weight," "to get energy" and "to prevent disease."
The PBH research also shows that kids younger than 12 years old have increased their intake of fruit by almost 10 percent since 2004. However, vegetable intake has remained relatively unchanged, and only 2 percent of children meet both fruit and vegetable targets.
The mothers studied also indicated that restaurants can be both a catalyst and a barrier to increasing their family’s fruit and vegetable consumption. “Although moms report that it is easier to get their family to eat fruit at restaurants and quick-service establishments (as compared to prior years), moms still report limited fruit and vegetable choices in restaurants as one of the main barriers to increasing their family’s fruit and vegetable consumption," explained Pivonka. "So, again a great opportunity for the restaurant industry.”
LAUSD a testing ground for healthful dishes
David Binkle serves up more than 120 million meals for kids each year. His position as the Interim Director of Food Services for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest district in the nation, has provided a testing ground for finding ways to please kids with healthful ingredients.
One of the biggest and most important changes Binkle and his LAUSD foodservice team made was to transform the procurement process. “Instead of asking, ‘What can you give us for the cheapest price?’ we now tell our suppliers what we want, including the quality standards the products must meet," Binkle explained. "And our suppliers are stepping up to the challenge. We have moved from highly processed foods to more natural and whole foods."
The district spent a good part of 2008 and 2009 on revamping its menus and recipes. "We removed or reduced a lot of the customary processed meals, like nachos, corn dogs, pizza, macaroni and cheese and fried foods," Binkle noted. "We added lean protein meals, such as chicken breast sandwiches made with 100% whole grain buns and chicken wings." Those new items, he said, have so far been popular.
"We are always exploring new ways to please our kids with healthful ingredients," Binkle said, adding that he is always looking at the restaurant industry for inspiration. “In fact, I just tried the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad at Jack in the Box and it was fantastic. Moist, flavorful, really good!"
Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected] .