If you’ve been at a restaurant with children recently, you’ve probably noticed that the kids’ menu is looking a little different than it used to. These days, kids’ menus are just as likely to feature items like organic cheese quesadillas or gluten-free vegan chili as they are to include old favorites like hot dogs—and even those are probably going to be made from grass-fed beef.
Welcome to the world of healthier kids’ meals, the sixth hottest food trend of 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association. When it comes to dining out, health and nutritional transparency are top of mind for today’s consumers, and those concerns extend to what their kids are eating. A poll from the American Heart Association recently revealed that nearly nine in 10 parents are in favor of healthier kids’ meals.
In response to this rising consumer demand, all kinds of restaurants, including some of the biggest national chains, are rethinking and revamping their kid-oriented offerings to be just as healthful, tasty, and appealing as food for adults. The ultimate hope is that, if children are given healthy options earlier, they will develop a taste for nutritious food, and will grow up with better eating habits that will help them remain healthy as adults.
This shift toward healthier kids’ menus is not just beneficial for families who enjoy eating out, it’s also a smart business move for restaurants. A 2015 study by the Obesity Society examined what happened when the full-service restaurant chain Silver Diner brought some healthy changes to its kids’ menu. The chain made its principal kids’ meals healthier, served healthy side dishes with all kids’ meals by default, and removed french fries and soda pop from the kids’ menu. Not only did this result in healthier ordering patterns from customers, but the restaurant’s revenue continued to grow at the same time. This suggests that, far from making restaurants less competitive, healthier kids’ menus can actually be a boon for them.
For restaurants that are contemplating the introduction of healthier kids’ menus, the good news is that this transition doesn’t have to be difficult. There are plenty of ways to integrate healthy options into kids’ meals that are both cost-effective and tasty. Some of the top strategies to consider include the following:
Add colorful fruits and vegetables
Seasonal and heirloom fruits and vegetables—hot food trends in their own right—can be a bright and appealing element in a kids’ entrée or as a side dish. Colorful produce is always attractive, and fruits and veggies can even be cut into fun shapes or spirals as an extra enticement for young eaters. According to research from Produce for Better Health, some of the top choices for kids include green beans, carrots, broccoli, corn, strawberries, grapes, oranges, and pineapple.
Use whole grains
Swapping refined grains with whole grains or using whole grains as the base for a side dish are simple ways to boost the nutritional value of kids’ menu items without substantially altering their taste or appeal. For example, pasta, pizza crust, and bread can all be made using whole wheat flour instead of white flour. Likewise, rice dishes can be made using alternatives like brown rice or quinoa. In general, it’s a good idea to limit offerings that make heavy use of refined grain products; doughnuts, muffins, garlic bread, and crackers are just some examples of typical kids’ menu items that are high in processed grains (as well as fat and added sugar).
Focus on lean proteins
Lean and plant-based proteins can help give kids the nutrition they need without a lot of extra fat. Skinless chicken and turkey breast, lean beef, fish and seafood, and even tofu are appearing more and more frequently on modern kids’ menus. And lean doesn’t have to mean tasteless—creative use of sauces and condiments like fruit salsas, fruit juice-based marinades, and low-sodium teriyaki or honey mustard sauces can enhance the flavor of even the leanest proteins.
Keep an eye on sodium
Sodium can add up quickly in kids’ meals, especially since many traditional kids’ offerings tend to rely heavily on processed products like cheese, sauces, and dressings. Restaurants can avoid this by reducing their use of processed ingredients. For example, when sauces like ketchup or ranch dip are made in-house, it’s much easier to monitor—and cut down on—the amount of salt being used.
Don’t forget about drinks
According to the experts, sugary sodas and other sweetened beverages (including things like flavored milk) have no place on a healthy kids’ menu. Instead, pure or sparkling water is the top recommended healthy option. To make it more appealing, try adding fruit slices or berries to each serving. Skim milk and 100% fruit juice with no added sugar are also good choices.