family eating

The days of chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and fat-laden fried sides being the only staples on kids’ menus are coming to an end. Today’s families who dine out more often than past generations are looking for healthier alternatives for their children. That’s why you may have noticed that some restaurant children’s menus are stepping away from the traditional fare you’d expect to see, and are offering more healthy choices.

If you’re not sure about whether a kids’ menu upgrade is necessary for your establishment, consider this: Not only are more healthful options a good idea for kids, it’s a good idea for your bottom line. Parents who know they can find healthy options for their kids that they’ll actually eat could become your most loyal diners. When mom or dad don’t feel like cooking, you’ll be at the top of their list for a family-friendly dining out option.

Why You Should Offer Healthy Kids Menu Options

  • For starters, children consume an average of 25 percent of their daily calories from fast food and other restaurants.
  • Many families now eat out for meals more often than staying in.
  • The National Restaurant Association cares enough about the health of children’s food that it’s created the Kids LiveWell healthy dining program to promote healthier food options for kids at restaurants. Over 42,000 restaurant locations participate by including approved ingredients on their kids’ menu.
  • You’ll be doing your part to train young palates for better quality food. Exposure to a variety of flavors, textures and foods helps kids develop an appreciation for food. An appreciation that will hopefully expand as they get older and turn them into your future customers.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Kids LiveWell program, there are lots of healthy alternatives that you can consider in your menu planning. Just a few tweaks or additional menu options can go a long way. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Healthy Foods to Add to Your Restaurant Kids’ Menu

Lean Protein

Offering leaner meat options like poultry and fish is a good way of providing healthier protein than red, fatty meats. Even better, offer those options grilled or baked, rather than battered and deep fried. And, make it fun: Think kabobs, cool shapes, and tasty dipping sauces.

Vegetables

It’s hard to get kids excited about steamed carrots and broccoli. Instead, consider adding side salads and jazzed-up seasonal produce. Try swapping French fries out for baked sweet potato wedges or cauliflower tots, for instance. Add some low-fat cheese, buffalo sauce, or ranch dressing to dunk, and the kids will hardly notice.

Whole Grains

Foods that include whole grains are rich in naturally-occurring nutrients. You can also find a ton of great alternative grain options that will be attractive to kids. Offer black and wild rice varieties, red lentils, couscous, and whole grain pastas as sides, as well as rye and whole wheat bread options for toast and sandwiches.

Fruits

Fruits are sometimes an easier sell for a picky kid crowd, so some restaurants are including them throughout their menus. Add them to entrees and in other unexpected ways (fruit salsa!) to surprise and delight pint-sized diners. Hint: Smoothies served in a spill-proof kid cup are a great option.

No- or Low-Sugar Drinks

Instead of sugary “fruit” concoctions and sodas, add some healthier alternatives like low-fat milk, spritzers made with seltzer and a splash of juice, or fresh fruit-infused waters.

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restaurant kids menu with healthy options

Food to Avoid in Your Restaurant Kids’ Menu

Sure, kids love the standards—grilled cheese, hot dogs, nuggets—but you can still do your part in transforming those options into more healthier forms. To do so, the Kids LiveWell program recommends limiting these three ingredients in your recipes:

  • Unhealthy fats
  • Refined sugars
  • Excess salt

How to Get the Word Out

If you do decide to change your kids’ menu, you want your patrons to know all about your efforts. And you want to be sure that you reach different segments including parents and grandparents. Here are some ways to appeal to different types of diners who may have a vested interest in healthier family dining:

Older Parents and Grandparents

Loosely defined as 45 and older, this group of diners are more likely to count calories, and they continue to look for options described as “low-calorie” or “low-sodium” on the menu. They are also more likely to skip dessert or omit carbohydrates—in other words, they respond well to traditional, mainstream diet buzzwords when selecting a dining out place for themselves and their children. To reach them, add and clearly mark the leaner options on your menu and consider including calorie counts for your “lighter” fare.

Younger Parents

The 18-to-34 crowd who might be young parents respond well to restaurants that emphasize responsible and healthy food sourcing, so opt for new menu announcements that use words like “organic,” “sustainable” and “local.” Promote your commitment to local and sustainable food sources and any other food values that your business is concerned with. Noting menu items that are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or made without refined or chemically processed ingredients will especially appeal to parents for whom healthful foods are a priority.

Any Health-Conscious Diner

Although the term “superfood” is typically a marketing ploy, there’s a reason why the foods associated with the name become popular on menus. They do have beneficial nutrients like antioxidants, phytochemicals or Omega 3s. Many also possess abilities to lower cholesterol or ward off diseases. And the best part of super foods is that they don’t contain any of the potentially harmful substances, like saturated fat. Some popular superfoods that you might consider adding to your kids’ (and regular) menus include blueberries, acai berries, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beets, sweet potatoes, salmon, and cauliflower.

Spreading the word about your healthy menu offerings and kids’ menu makeover will create an instant appeal among those looking for better food options for their families. Even just a few small changes or additions can bring in a whole new clientele, and you’ll be doing your part toward promoting healthy eating.

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Written by   |  
Dawn Papandrea is freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Family Circle, WomansDay.com, and more. She loves trying new restaurants with her family and friends in her spare time.