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A new playbook for kids' menus

With childhood obesity so widespread—one third of America’s children are overweight—restaurants are beginning to take on some of the responsibility by offering healthier kids’ menus. The National Restaurant Association recently initiated Kids LiveWell, a program that helps parents identify restaurants with healthier options. Other initiatives are motivating kids to be more active, most notably First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

“These programs are good starts, but there’s nothing that links food with play,” claimed Ian Davidson, Senior Manager Brand Insights at C3, during an Innovation Forum at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. C3, a family and kids marketing and design agency, discovered in its research that parents are concerned about both exercise and healthy eating. Kids are getting more health-conscious too.

  • 31% of families are now more active with their kids
  • 63% of moms have made a change in their kids eating habits over the past year
  • 70% of moms want to see healthy kids options on menus
  • 80% of kids say eating healthy is important

To gently push kids toward a healthier all-around lifestyle, C3 created Power2Play, a program that illustrates the simple relationship between calorie consumption and physical activity. Icons tell kids what exercise they need and how much in order to offset half the calories of each food choice. Restaurants can adapt Power2Play to their menus.

Kids’ menus also have to cater to the evolving demands and tastes of two sets of consumers—parents and children. Last year, parents voiced most concern over added sugar in kids’ diets; this year, it’s about pesticides and chemical residue, Davidson pointed out. “Kids look to their parents and teachers for healthy eating guidance,” he added. Healthy foods kids consider “cool” are fruit, granola bars and smoothies, according to C3’s research.

Restaurants can capitalize on these findings, said the second presenter, Doug Austin, SVP of Growth & Innovation at Food IQ & Marlin Network. C3 partnered with Food IQ to show operators how to easily make healthy adjustments in kids’ menu items. “There’s an opportunity around fruit and embracing seasonality,” Austin noted. “Kids’ favorite flavor profiles include strawberry, blueberry and orange.” He also described a major palate shift that takes place around age 10. “Tweens have double the number of taste buds as younger children, so they like bolder flavors, such as pizza and tacos. You can’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all kids menu.’”

Food IQ followed through by developing a Kids Menu Makeover program, using professional chefs to create healthier versions of children’s favorites. Austin presented a few examples, all made over to be lower in calories, fat, sodium and/or sugar and higher in nutritional value:

  • Burger: A turkey burger with natural cheese on a wheat bun with lettuce and tomato replaced a classic cheeseburger with a white bun, beef patty and processed American cheese
  • Grilled Cheese: A sandwich made with natural cheese and sliced fruit on whole wheat bread pressed in a waffle iron instead of a processed American cheese sandwich grilled on white bread coated with butter
  • Mac ’n Cheese: Whole wheat elbow macaroni, butternut squash puree and natural cheese in place of white macaroni and processed American cheese sauce
  • Milkshake/Smoothie: Frozen yogurt, strawberry puree and cooked beet puree instead of whole milk, ice cream and cookie pieces (kids loved the bright red color)

Not only are these options healthier, they are more grown up and “cooler.” “Let chefs have free reign in the kitchen,” Austin encouraged the attendees. “See this as an opportunity to add adventure and help kids expand their palates.”

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