Kids today are sophisticated diners: A lot of them know their way around couscous, quinoa and cappellini. Their early exposure to exotic flavors and global cuisines has prompted many operators to bring more grown-up flavors to their kids’ menus. On the other side of the table, today’s parents have come to expect kid-friendly fare to be somewhat healthy. But better-for-you initiatives can be a particularly hard sell, and too healthy can go too far.
So how are operators juggling the combination of better-for-you initiatives with kids’ increased culinary consciousness? They are tweaking their menus to include flavors that appeal to kids as well as healthier options that win over parents and kill the veto vote.
Fortunately, commodity boards can help with achieving this tenuous balancing act.
Still Trending: Healthy Kids’ Meals
The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “What’s Hot?” Culinary Forecast, which surveys nearly 1,300 members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), ranks healthful kids’ meals in the top five dining trends, and children’s nutrition lands in the top 10. Indeed, healthful kids’ meals have ranked within the top 20 trends among chefs since 2009, according to the NRA. “That’s not a fad,” says Dave Zino, executive chef of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor with the Beef Checkoff Program. “It’s safe to say it’s a trend.”
Young Millennial parents, he says, consider healthy kids’ meals an expectation, not an exception to the rule. “Operators and menu developers are trying to do healthier meals, but they need to be as good as the meals that aren’t as good for you—the chicken nuggets of the world,” he adds.
Of course, parents pay the bill when families dine out. And research shows that healthy dining options are important to them. The 2014 Restaurant Industry Forecast found that
81 percent of all adults say there are more healthy options available at restaurants compared with two years ago. And 72 percent of all adults are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options.
“The ACF chefs who took part in the survey understand that sourcing locally and environmental sustainability tie in with ongoing efforts to provide more-healthful foods for everyone, especially children,” says Thomas Macrina, ACF national president.
The NRA launched its Kids LiveWell program in 2011 to showcase the restaurant industry’s commitment to offer healthful options for children. When the program started, the NRA had 15 restaurant brands representing 15,000 locations. Kids LiveWell has now grown to more than 145 restaurant brands representing 42,000 locations across the country. (View participating restaurants and their healthy kids’ menu items on HealthyDiningFinder.com.)
Nearly six out of 10 chefs surveyed in the NRA’s What’s Hot in 2014 report said they always make efforts to adjust dishes and recipes to be more healthful. One third of them said that they cook with nutrition in mind—even though it’s not easy to adjust all of their recipes without sacrificing flavor.
Operators do make those adjustments when they can. Burger King recently converted the fries they serve in kids’ meals to Satisfries. The crinkle-cut fries, cut from whole potatoes, are lightly battered to absorb 40 percent less fat and deliver 30 percent fewer calories.
Operators have other options to use potatoes in healthy kids’ offerings, according to
Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. He suggests cutting the portion of fries and serving them with a variety of dips (to slow down consumption and make eating them more fun). Top baked potatoes with salsa instead of butter and sour cream. “I think if kids could have some healthier toppings for their spuds, like a make-your-own or a lazy Susan with choices, it would be popular,” he says. Potatoes can also stand in for bread as a gluten-free option, such as a sliced potato pizza crust, for kids with gluten sensitivities.
Popular menu items can easily take on a fresh and wholesome twist. The NCBA’s Zino says many of the meals kids enjoy—including tacos, Sloppy Joes and spaghetti with meat sauce—can use 93 percent or leaner ground beef.
Above all, the food needs to be delicious. Here, knowledge and skill can go a long way. “A great sauce will help pull everything together,” Zino says. “Just a bit of fish sauce, used correctly, will make a beef sauce taste beefier. If you understand umami, you can use it to make your healthy dishes even tastier.”
While avocados find their way into fresh flavor combinations for all ages, the Hass Avocado Board keeps kids’ palates in mind when developing recipes. “We recommend recipes that are simple and can be divided into bite-sized portions or dipped,” says Ligaya Malones on behalf of the Board. “We want to strike the right balance of predictable flavors and textures with the new, while keeping the ingredients’ nutritional integrity.” Popular kid-friendly recipes include their avocado, feta and apple sandwich, avocado and coconut ice pops, and an avocado blueberry licuado—a thick and healthy “milkshake.”
Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications at the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), says that consumers are increasingly aware of what they and their families are consuming when they eat out, and they’re looking to the foodservice industry to offer responsible choices. “Today’s kids are sophisticated diners. Operators know they need to offer great-tasting, kid-friendly menu items that are high in nutritional value,” she says, adding that the CMAB is a sponsor of the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program.
“We’re proud to help operators nationwide discover versatile dairy products that deliver on taste and nutrition and meet their needs both as ingredients and stand-alone menu items for younger patrons,” says Giambroni.
Fresh, locally sourced ingredients are among them. Giggles-n-Hugs a chain of casual kid-friendly restaurants based in Los Angeles, features California cream cheese on its popular Walnut, Cucumber, and Cream Cheese Roll.
Familiar, Yet Exotic
Global and exotic influences are as compelling a trend as healthful meals in the coming year, according to the NRA’s research. Perennial favorites continue to feature locally grown produce, gluten-free cuisine, sustainable seafood, health/nutrition, new cuts of meat, ancient grains, global-inspired breakfast items, non-traditional fish, healthful kids’ meals and fruit/vegetable sides in kids’ meals. But, among these trends, the research forecasts that globally inspired kids’ dishes will rise 6 percent in popularity this year.
The National Peanut Board is poised to help, by developing ethnic peanut recipes for kids’ menus. “Peanuts make the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar,” says Sherry Coleman Collins, registered dietitian and nutritionist for the National Peanut Board. “Because people are familiar with peanuts, when operators include them in a sauce or topping for Thai or other Asian food, the flavor is familiar to them. So they’ll try things that they might otherwise be hesitant to try.”
Peanuts offer another strength on kids’ menus. “It’s not unusual for kids to be vegetarian for a time. In fact, a lot of kids go through a period of vegetarianism,” Collins says. “Peanuts are a fantastic way to bridge the gap with a high-quality protein. And most kids who may not love meat love the flavor and the texture of peanut butter,” she says. They’re not alone. “More and more people are looking at ways to eat diets that have a more positive effect on their overall health, including plant-based proteins. But people still want food that tastes great.”
Peanuts may have originated in South America—specifically Peru—making them a natural fit with certain global dishes. “They complement popular exotic grains like quinoa and give structure to great sauces, such as moles. I think we’re going to see a lot more South and Central American foods on menus, and kids will be interested in them as they see their parents eating and enjoying them,” says Collins.
Consumer fear following a wave of well-publicized peanut allergies years ago has settled down significantly. “In fact, we know now that .6 percent of Americans have a peanut allergy,” notes Collins. But misconceptions prevent some people from enjoying all that peanuts have to offer. The Board is working to battle misinformation and distribute more accurate data uncovered through a dozen years and $12 million of science-based research. Its new Food Allergy Advisory Council will help get the word out, as will the Board’s new allergy education website, PeanutAllergyFacts.com.
Choice is King
For the kids of the Millennial generation, food is not just a meal, it’s an experience. The more experiential you can make that restaurant visit, they more they will enjoy it—and come back for more, notes Zino. And these families are eating out a lot, averaging two or three meals out per week. Fast casuals are reaping the benefits of their regular restaurant habit.
To build their loyalty, Zino advises describing healthy kids’ menu offerings carefully. Don’t highlight whole-wheat pasta if it’s going to be a roadblock for your clientele, and offer a choice of whole couscous instead. Customers know what they want, even if you have other plans. “I’m from Chicago, where you never put ketchup on a hot dog. But I know there are condiments that kids love,” he says. “Don’t ignore that.”
In fact, giving kids (and their parents) healthful and exotic options may be the secret to menu developers’ success. “Savvy kids today are digging into Asian, Hispanic and Indian food; their palates have definitely expanded,” Zino adds. Instead of steamed broccoli florets, give kids broccoli slaw or kale chips.
“Allowing them to make their choices is the key for them to enjoy the eating experience. I think operators need to understand that if the kids are happy, Mom and Dad are happy.”