When the National Restaurant Association recently polled members of the American Culinary Federation to determine the top trends for 2011, the respondents cited focusing on children’s nutrition not once, but twice, among the first 10.

They indicated that one way restaurants are tempting youngsters to try new things is to include “kid cuisine” (gourmet children’s dishes) and “mini meals” (smaller versions of adult menu items) on their children’s menus.

The question is will junior diners really be willing to eschew their beloved chicken fingers, hot dogs and mac and cheese for more sophisticated fare?

The answer is yes, according to a number of restaurateurs, ranging from independents to large chains such as McCormick & Schmick’s. While the traditional favorites still dominate the kid-centric menu offerings, grilled or broiled seafood, chicken and even sushi are popping up and, according to these operators, making both children and their parents happy.

“It’s still hard to get the under 10-year-old crowd to venture beyond the familiar, but we’re seeing more older kids who want to be more adventurous,” says Tori Harms, spokeswoman for McCormick & Schmick’s, Portland, Oregon. “They seem to particularly like the grilled salmon.”

The kids’ menu serving of salmon is five ounces. It comes with jasmine rice, steamed vegetables or mashed potatoes and costs from $7.95 to $10.95 depending on the restaurant’s location. On the adult menu, the portion is seven ounces and costs from $22.95 to $27.95. Another popular item, Harms notes, is the teriyaki chicken bowl and, in some West Coast markets, the California roll. 

At Brasserie Cognac in New York City, N.Y., children’s menu sales of lemon-poached sole and herb-and-olive-oil marinated and grilled chicken paillard run neck-and-neck with chicken nuggets, according to executive chef Florian Hugo.

At Beacon Restaurant & Bar, also in New York City, chef/co-owner Waldy Malouf offers a kids’ menu that ranges from his own “upscale” version of chicken fingers, made with panko-crusted spit-roasted chicken and accompanied by a honey mango dip, to scallops or salmon cooked in his wood-burning oven. Over 90% of the items on the adult menu at Beacon are also available in child-size portions for half price.

“I know that many children are becoming more interested in food as a result of watching television,” said Malouf. “Children as young as eight year olds come up and ask me if I’ve been on ‘Iron Chef.’”

Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chair of the committee on nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics and chief of the division of Neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, also attributes the development of more adventurous palates early in life to parents’ eating habits.

“Children like to emulate their parents, so it’s important that parents offer them at least a taste of the different, more healthful foods that they’re eating. The earlier they try new foods, the more likely they are to easily accept them as a regular part of their diet.”

However, Ron Santibanez, president of California-based Profit Line Consulting, which works with restaurants around the country, is hesitant to call this a trend.

“I think it’s more of an experiment to make parents happy and see if kids really are ready and willing to be included in the fine-dining experience,” he explains.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey
Industry News