CHICAGO | Chicago mom Diane Schmidt had given up on dining out with her daughter.
Every meal left her with an impossible choice: hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets or hamburgers. Sure there were apple slices served at fast-food restaurants in place of fries, but the nights her family ate out left her feeling frustrated and guilty.
“I was chatting with someone at a conference when we started talking about why the worst foods were on the kids’ menus,” said Schmidt. “I decided then that I was going to work in my community to find a way to offer healthier meals.”
Using her background in public health and experience as a foodservice consultant, Schmidt launched Chicago-based Healthy Fare for Kids last December. Headed by Schmidt, award-winning chef Sarah Stegner and nutritionist Carol Wagner, the small grassroots group works with local restaurants to develop at least one healthy option for children’s menu.
Healthy Fare for Kids’ list of participating restaurants now includes some blockbuster names: Frontera Grill, the Publican, the Ritz Carlton and the Goose Island restaurant.
“This isn’t just about obesity rates in children, this is about teaching them wellness and healthy behaviors for their future. I wanted to help support parents in this fight to raise healthy kids because this is really such a battle,” Schmidt said.
After first lady Michelle Obama launched her national campaign for child wellness with the Let’s Move program, improving health and nutrition became a mission for many restaurants across the nation.
The National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of restaurant trends rated healthful kid’s meals as the third largest area of growth in the entire industry.
It was on the same list as artisan ice cream, microbrew beers and gluten-free menus, In fact, of the 20 top trends, 25 percent were directly related to children’s health.
Experts don’t see the trend fading away anytime in the near future.
“This is a trend that I think will really stick, and it’s the focus on the ... lifestyle and communicating to children that it’s not just about the food they’re eating,” said Sara Monnette, a research director at Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm Technomic. “When you compare kid menus to adult menus, you see adult menus with calorie counts ... but for kids ... it’s not what the industry wants to teach them. It’s about balance and well-roundedness.”
With a childhood obesity rate in Illinois just under 15 percent, demand for better nutrition has restaurants moving quickly to keep customers happy. National chains and smaller independent business owners are faced with the conundrum of producing healthy options that are both delicious and will appeal to children — and to parents looking for options that don’t break the bank.
“It’s a smart investment for the operators,” Monnette said. “Parents are looking out for the well-being of their families.”
In a recent survey of more than 3,000 menu items, Technomic’s Menu Monitor found that the number of steamed items on children’s menus doubled from 2008 to 2012, and grilled options increased by 10 percent.
Nationally, chain restaurants have answered the call with new programs like Kids Live Well, which was launched last year by the restaurant association. Within one year, Kids Live Well has expanded to include 30,000 locations around the country, and national names such as Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse.
For a children’s meal to qualify for the program it must be under 600 calories and balanced to include at least two fruits and vegetables, proteins, whole grains or a dairy option. While much of the program is aimed at getting kids healthy, a good portion also is based on educating the association members.
“We want to be part of the solution in ... addressing childhood nutrition and obesity,” said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living for the National Restaurant Association. “Obviously the restaurant industry has a role to play in childhood nutrition because people do eat out, and we want to provide healthier options for our children.
Dubost said that getting resources in the hands of the restaurateurs was key to successful implementation of the program. Videos and blogs that describe how to better incorporate ingredients such as whole grains into a menu or dish were particularly important.
Parents aren’t the only ones cheering the new initiatives. Businesses that invest in better nutrition also are reaping the benefits of their corporate citizenship.
In a 2011 survey of mothers, Technomic found that well over a third perceived both fast-food and fine-dining restaurants without healthy options in a more negative way.
“I think anecdotally restaurants have had an increase in sales on those (healthy) items since they joined Kids Live Well,” said Dubost. “Each restaurant has (its) own story to tell. I think it’s holding strong and (the program is) totally in line with what the trends are within the industry and what the consumers want.”
Tom Kenny, executive chef and partner of Mike Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago, said that working with the locally run Healthy Fare for Kids was a no-brainer. Besides just having that healthy option, he said it was crucial to create something that kids wanted to eat. Orders for Ditka’s elephant tusk pasta have kept pace with other options on the kid’s menu.
“I’ve never had a parent call me to the table (about the menu), but we know that there is really a fair amount of kids who are ordering these dishes,” said Kenny. “Our menu still has the burgers and such but they do order this too. I think it’s important (to have options) because there is a large group of overweight people in our country and they don’t start that way but become that way.”
At John’s Place, a casual sit-down dining spot in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, co-owner Lynn Manilow said even those kids who do order the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets are able to supplement them with apple slices or carrots as a side, offering a little bit more balance and nutrition. The trend toward healthy sides has been a major way that restaurants have been able to steer families toward more nutritious choices.
The restaurant association said that fruit and vegetables as side dishes were the third most popular child menu trend of the year.
With increased attention being paid to better balanced dinner plates, children’s menus also are beginning to look more and more like adult ones — fruit and vegetable side items are taking the place of fried ones. There also is a new emphasis on local and sustainably grown food.
In Chicago though, Schmidt just wants restaurateurs to know that this is all part of the larger process of helping kids to live a healthier life.
“I want all kids to really be able to understand what healthy, delicious food tastes like,” Schmidt said. “I want them to be able to find it, whether in a restaurant, or in their own kitchen.”