Steps to a Healthier Kids’ Menu

There are five best practices we recommend to restaurants and menu developers in creating kids’ menus, and they range from the foods offered to how they’re described.

Calories: No child needs more than 600 calories in any meal, and that includes the beverage. There’s no need to supersize a meal for kids who are active or play sports; they can make up the calories through snacking.

We encourage restaurants to think about proper portion sizes and the mix of foods. It’s also important to follow the MyPlate guidance of half the meal being fruits and veggies, as that helps control calories.

Carbohydrates: We encourage menu developers to think about whole grains. There are a lot of phenomenal whole-grain options out there that kids don’t even realize are whole grains. One is white, whole-wheat flour, and it’s great for sandwich bread. It doesn’t look so dark and dense that a kid may push it away and say, “I’m not going to eat that.” Another option is whole-grain pasta.

The other side of the carbohydrate story is beverages. We encourage chefs and menu developers to offer milk or water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages. Soda could easily add 300 calories before the meal even comes.

Customization: Everybody in America loves choice and customization, and it’s important to offer kids choices so they can customize and individualize their meal. But, we have to give them good choices. Restaurants shouldn’t ask a child, “On your burger, do you want cheese or bacon?” We encourage them to provide more healthful options and ask, “Do you want creamy avocado or smoky caramelized onions?” So, the choices are equally good from a nutrition perspective, but the kid still gets to have that power and control.

Alternatively, bacon or other more-desired toppings may be a gateway to get a kid to try something like a turkey burger. Kids sometimes think a burger has to be beef, and they’re used to that flavor and texture. But if you let them add bacon to a turkey burger, which is lower in saturated fat than the all-beef burger, then that is fine—as long as restaurants consider the whole calorie picture, and the meal stays within 600 calories.

Culinary creativity: When adults think about kids’ meals, we tend to think they need to be bland and safe, and that’s just not true. Kids will go after bolder flavors. We talk a lot with chefs about looking at world cuisines and flavors, and making kids’ food more interesting. We’re all interested in culinary adventure, and world cuisines provide inspiration for making healthy foods more flavorful and craveable.

For instance, sauces and salsas are a great way to go about doing that. Instead of basic ketchup, restaurants might offer something that’s got a little more heat to it, like a Spanish Romesco sauce, which is similar to ketchup in that it’s made with tomatoes, but it has more flavor, depth, and smokiness. Another option is something like sriracha ketchup, which gives a familiar dipping sauce more flavor and excitement.

Communication: You have to make the exotic familiar. Let’s say you’re doing a chaat masala sweet potato fry. The word chaat is an Indian word that not many Americans are familiar with. But if you call it a spicy sweet potato fry, it sounds familiar to kids and introduces an exotic element. There’s an immediate sensory opportunity when kids put that fry on their tongues and their taste buds start dancing. There’s also an aspirational aspect of food—so talking about food and flavor in a way that gets kids to aspire to something more is important. Take the word sriracha: a kid who is able to say that and have a little street cred will be more likely to eat it again.

Amy Myrdal Miller is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the senior director of programs and culinary nutrition at the CIA. She is co-author of The Healthy Heart Cookbook for Dummies. At the CIA, she plans annual conferences on health, nutrition, wellness, and sustainability for culinary, foodservice, and healthcare professionals.