An inviting children’s menu can be the difference between frequent family diners and parents who limit their visits to nights the babysitter is available. In an era of health-conscious dining and mindful spending, we looked at how the innovators in the industry are enticing the younger crowd.
Ruby Tuesday Inc.
Offering better-for-you food is a primary objective at Ruby Tuesday Inc. Andy Scoggins, vice president of culinary and beverage at the Maryville, Tennessee-based restaurant company, works with his team to create dishes that not only give kids a wide variety of foods to choose from, but also, he says, are “balanced and have a good selection of fruits and vegetables, along with proteins they can feel good about eating.”
Their menu still includes longtime favorite chicken tenders, but french fries are no longer listed as a side option (they’re available on request). “We’d rather just list the things we believe are a little bit better for our kids to eat,” Scoggins says. He reports favorable feedback from younger diners on the healthier fare and says he’s seeing more of them go for the pastas, grilled chicken, fruits, and veggies.
Ted’s Montana Grill
The bison meatloaf on the kids’ menu at Atlanta-based Ted’s Montana Grill is “awesome,” says Chris Raucci, the company’s corporate executive chef. Bison aren’t routinely treated with the hormones and antibiotics that cows often receive, and it contains less cholesterol than all but the leanest ground beef.
At Ted’s, the meatloaf is paired with mashed potatoes and squash casserole to create comfort food that’s tasty and still good for the kiddos. “It’s something hopefully they get at home, and then we’re doing it a little better, a little healthier,” he says.
Embracing more wholesome choices, such as providing apple slices or a fruit cocktail in place of fried foods, is something Raucci sees as an evolving trend within the industry. The same thinking applies to the beverage options at Ted’s. “We try to stay away from soft drinks,” Raucci says. “We’d rather give them a glass of water, fresh-squeezed lemonade, or milk.”
George McKerrow, co-founder and CEO of Ted’s, maintains that kids enjoy eating like adults, especially when they go out. “A kid would rather have a really nice piece of salmon or a crab cake or fresh-made food that is healthy, nutritious, and well-balanced much more often than people give them credit for,” he says.
Not only do kids appreciate the tasty, somewhat exotic fare at Ted’s, but McKerrow says the children’s menu has also received immense approval from parents.
“I have watched our guest satisfaction ratings go skyrocketing over that issue,” he says. It’s worth noting there’s one children’s menu staple that Ted’s just hasn’t been able to shake: the chicken tender. “We tried to take the chicken tenders off,” McKerrow confirms. The result, he says, was “mass rebellion and a major loss of guest satisfaction.” The tenders remain on the menu.
The Kids LiveWell program, a collaborative effort of Healthy Dining and the National Restaurant Association, provides a set of nutritional criteria restaurants can follow to create menu items that qualify for the program. Anita Jones-Mueller, president of San Diego-based Healthy Dining, says an increasing number of restaurants are shifting their children’s menus toward healthier foods, typically by “including more fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein, plus cutting calories and portion control.”
She’s also seeing a range of more sophisticated meal options being provided for younger diners. When it comes to developing new dishes, Jones-Mueller believes it’s all about tapping into healthful ingredients that appeal to children. “Kids like healthy foods,” she says. “They just need to be served to them in a way they would enjoy.”
Silver Diner Development Inc.
Lifestyle choices, including unhealthy eating, are major contributors to the health problems facing today’s kids, says Ype Von Hengst, executive chef, vice president of culinary operations and co-founder of Rockville, Maryland-based Silver Diner Development Inc. “We need to give our kids healthier and better food, and expose them to more products,” he says.
Silver Diner is a Kids LiveWell participant, and Von Hengst has limited conventional dishes that don’t meet the healthful criteria, instead offering kids more flavorful food that’s interesting, enticing, and better for them. But good nutrition isn’t enough. “Food has to taste good,” Von Hengst says. “If I had a teriyaki salmon that tasted lousy, no one would eat it. But I have beautiful brown rice and lovely salmon, and the kids love it.”
Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill
The push for kids to incorporate healthier eating into their lifestyles is coming from a number of fronts, says Matt Janiec, R&D chef at Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill in Scottsdale, Arizona. He sees it as a good step forward. “I think you have these huge companies—like McDonald’s, like Disney—that are really out in the marketplace promoting healthier eating and talking about getting away from the sugars and salts and prefab foods.” The power and reach of those brands are helping to create a shift in the marketplace, Janiec says. “They’ve taken the baton and run with it, which is great.”
Chopped salads and veggie quesadillas have replaced less-healthful dishes on the Z’Tejas menu, and while crispy chicken strips are still a hit, the grilled variation is also gaining fans. “We do still offer french fries as a side,” Janiec says, “but we also offer fresh fruit, side salads, and things like that.” Having a diverse menu is important, too, and Janiec says he tries to “appease kids of all different backgrounds.”
Silver Diner also offers kids healthful spins on old favorites, such as whole-grain wheat spaghetti with mixed vegetables. “It’s amazing, when you have these things on the menu, kids start eating them,” Von Hengst says. The trick to making these new dishes appealing to children is often in the preparation. “Of course, you have to pick the right ingredients,” he says. Gluten-free, vegetarian, and low-fat options are also available.
Desserts: Just the right size
The team at Ruby Tuesday has figured out how to combine dreamy desserts with subtle portion control. Enter: the cupcake. Young diners can choose from red velvet or carrot cake, and parents don’t need to worry they’ll be on a sugar rush for the rest of the evening.
“We didn’t want to offer a ton of big portions, like a big cheesecake or something, that are going to be an overload,” Andy Scoggins says, quickly adding that the kids’ cupcake isn’t one of those scale-tipping monsters. “It’s a small, personal cupcake for the child,” he explains. “We feel it’s a good way to finish the meal if they want to go with something sweet.”
Rather than offering desserts for each person at the table (and possibly way too much dessert for the kiddos), Ted’s Montana Grill subscribes to the “big Montana sky” philosophy. “We do a family-style dessert,” George McKerrow explains. The strawberry shortcake and other tasty treats are sized to serve everyone at the table, meaning the kids get to enjoy the same made-from-scratch dishes the adults get, and parents still have individual control over how much their children find on their plates. But that sure doesn’t mean the youngsters leave hungry.
“We’ll put it on the table with fork and spoons, and the kids dig in and go crazy,” McKerrow says with a laugh. Small, one-is-just-the-right-size cookies are also available if the little diners prefer them to whatever Mom and Dad are having.
Steps to the future
Ted’s Montana Grill
Continuing to improve the quality of children’s dishes will help menus become even healthier, McKerrow says, and he believes most consumers are willing to pay a bit more for their kids to eat well. Chefs will need to remain sensitive about seasonings, textures, and tastes, but McKerrow insists that other improvements can still be made.
“We’re working on improving our macaroni and cheese, with ways to make it a little bit healthier,” he says, mentioning the potential to incorporate a wheat pasta. “I think it’s just a matter of staying in tune with good fundamentals that allow children to eat like young adults.”
“I think you’re going to start to see a lot more farm-fresh stuff,” Janiec says. “It’s something we’re looking at as a concept, to change over to pesticide-free produce and free-range chicken, things of that nature.” He believes parents are becoming much more aware of healthy dining choices for their children and says they’re doing things like opting for fresh fruit juice over soda more frequently. With the increasing focus on farm-fresh and organic foods, the trends, Janiec believes, are definitely putting a spotlight on “fresh, flavorful, healthy offerings.”
One trend Scoggins would definitely like to see is a move toward food that contains less of what he calls “trash.” He believes it’s important to pull out “trans fats, unnecessary calories, and high-fructose corn syrup.” It’s something he’s working on with the adult menu as well as the children’s.
“We honestly feel that cleaner, more natural food has better flavor, and because it has better flavor, then it’s going to help us get people to come into our restaurants more often,” Scoggins says.
Interest in offering healthy children’s dishes has grown tremendously. Jones-Mueller reports that a year ago there were 19 restaurants that had rolled out at least one item that met the strict criteria in the Kids Live Well program. “Now there are over 100 restaurant companies, with 25,000 locations. And some of the restaurants are adding more items,” she says.
It’s an evolution that’s not only good for kids now and into the future, but Jones-Mueller says it can also be a boost for restaurants. “They’re finding creative ways to add taste and flavors that appeal to kids, and that’s their marketing differentiation,” she says, “to show they’re helping kids.”
Those kinds of fundamental changes speak to the work Von Hengst is doing, too. When thinking about a food like chicken tenders, he says, “my next step is to serve those with a multigrain coating,” adding he’s also interested in finding a way to get away from frying.
Much of what Von Hengst aims to do is centered on a more holistic approach to children’s meals. “Giving kids a combination of protein and carbohydrates, all the food groups together,” he explains. An ingredient such as honey can be a good sugar substitute in some dishes, and Von Hengst says that even pancakes, adored by kids far and wide, might get a boost from better-quality, more healthful ingredients.
Von Hengst talks about childhood obesity and the need to improve kids’ eating habits and says, “How come not a lot of people are doing this?” He’s passionate about children’s nutrition and openly wonders why some restaurants still aren’t making healthy foods a priority. Parents often want to give their kids healthier foods, but Von Hengst says that by “constantly tempting them,” restaurants may diminish the parents’ good efforts. Instead, he hopes the industry continues to move toward healthier, balanced food and smaller portions.
“It’s the foundation of the next generation,” he says. Natural, farm-to-table ingredients are a must, he maintains, and he stresses that flavor doesn’t have to suffer. “If you want to have a big stack of pancakes in my diner, go for it. But I’ll do my best to make them better.”
The kid-approved taste panel
Kids had direct input on the menu items at Silver Diner. Instead of guessing at what the youngsters would and wouldn’t like, Ype Von Hengst set up a tasting panel that included about 40 kids. He gave the panelists some standard fare, such as chicken tenders, but upped the ante by using tenders that are antibiotic- and hormone-free. Other, more-sophisticated dishes were also put to the test. “I showed them teriyaki salmon with brown rice, edamame, broccoli, and carrot sticks from local farms,” Von Hengst says.
A dish like salmon might not make it beyond development if the adults are left to guess what kids would eat. The result with the panelists? It was a hit. “The kids said, ‘I love salmon, but I never get it at home,’” Von Hengst says. The panel cemented the idea that, without the benefit of familiarization at home, parents may not realize their children will often enjoy these cultured—and healthier—dishes. “When you expose the kids to it, you find out they love a lot more than you think they do,” Von Hengst says.
The team at Z’Tejas put a number of their children’s dishes through a test drive, too. First, Matt Janiec put together an offering sheet with several dozen potential menu items. From there, a panel of adults chose the top 10 offerings, which were prepared and served to a taste panel of about 20 people, including a number of kids. “It’s not a fool-proof system,” Janiec says, “but it gives us a good amount of feedback.”
Personal preferences and other factors sometimes give mixed results, but Janiec says that if a dish really doesn’t resonate with the taste panel, it’s dropped. “What we’re really trying to do is offer good food that’s going to taste good, that the kids are going to want.”