6 Simple Ways to Nutritionally Improve Your Kids’ Menu Right Now

The History of the Children’s Menu

The children’s menu dates back to the time of Prohibition, before which restaurants didn’t serve children, so as not to encourage kids to come along to dinner with their parents and ruin the party. When the booze ran dry, however, restaurants needed to make up the lost revenue, and they did that by inviting kids to the table. The kids’ menus of that era didn’t consist of chicken nuggets and fries, but simply plain foods such as omelets and broiled lamb chops.

Restaurant eating has changed since 1920, but unfortunately, the children’s menu seems to have devolved into a mess of fried foods and hotdogs — which, as a mom, I agree that most kids will accept because they, of course, have no insight into their health at such a young age. According to Harris, Schwartz, and Brownell, the average age of a children’s meal customer is 6 years old.

Kids tend to rise to the bar we set for them, and our menu bar for kids has been set very low. It’s up to us as chefs, parents, and restaurant operators to offer healthy foods for kids and take the meaning of kid-appropriate to another level. In an analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest of 34 chain restaurant children’s meal combinations, 91% of meals did not meet criteria set by a panel of nutrition and health experts because of excess calories, fat, and/or sodium.

It’s important to take another look at your children’s menu because today’s consumers — kids and parents especially — are wanting, and deserve, healthier options. The focus on childhood obesity is intense, consumers are far more nutrition-savvy than ever before, and restaurants need to stay ahead of the curve by providing healthy options that not only parents will like, but also that kids will eat and enjoy. There’s no point in giving kids a meal that they aren’t going to like!

The payoff for the restaurant is increased traffic and sales to families who are health conscious and may have otherwise avoided restaurants because of the lack of healthy options for kids. According to the National Restaurant Association’s research, 71% of adults are trying to eat healthier at restaurants than they did two years ago, and this likely translates into choices they make for their children, as well.

Photo Credit: Instagram, vegan_mollie

Photo Credit: Instagram, vegan_mollie

Changes You Can Make

To enhance their kids’ menus, some changes that chefs and operators may consider are:

1. Provide smaller sizes of standard menu items. The recommended calorie maximum for kids’ meals — an entrée, plus side plus beverage — should be between 430 to 600 calories and ≤ 35% total fat, according to the NRA Kids LiveWell program and USDA guidelines.

2. Offer sharing platters of cheese, meats, and vegetable sticks for kids. Kids like to nibble on small portions of different types of food, and they like to dip food as well — think raw vegetables and hummus, or cucumber and tzatziki. Having several types of foods for them to share can increase their exposure to healthy foods while keeping mealtimes fun.

3. Use a variety of colors and foods on the plates to make the food attractive to kids. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and foods cut into fun shapes can make food more inviting to kids. Try increasing your menu’s vegetable and fruit servings to meet the USDA ½ cup serving guideline, and default to vegetables or fruit instead of fries as a side for entrees.

4. Remove soft drinks from kids’ menus. This one’s a given. According to the USDA, soft drinks and fruit drinks are the biggest single source of calories and added sugars in the diets of children. 

5. Default to whole wheat instead of white. Increasing servings of whole grains on your kids’ menu in things like pasta and bread will help kids meet the recommended 2-5 servings of whole grains daily. 

6. Bake instead of fry. Fried foods are an automatic disqualifier for the Kids LiveWell program, but even if you’re not involved in the program, cutting fried foods from your kids’ menu can significantly reduce total fat. Try offering baked sweet potato fries, or handmade baked chicken nuggets with a whole grain coating.

The National Restaurant Association’s Kids Live Well program is a good start to reformulating kids’ meals, and nearly 42,000 restaurants in the United States are now involved in the program. You can check out more information on the program here.

Disclosing nutrition information is a way to ensure that parents can make educated, healthy choices for children. Supporting parents by providing information about quality of food, nutrition, and ensuring that there are healthy choices on your menu can be a win-win situation for you and the customer.