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National Restaurant Association - Chefs say ‘Recipe Challenge’ a great platform for healthful kids’ meals

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Chefs say ‘Recipe Challenge’ a great platform for healthful kids’ meals

Creating great tasting, healthful meals for kids can be challenging, but more chefs are saying the rewards are great.

The National Restaurant Association is collecting entries for its second annual Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge. The competition is open to chefs and restaurateurs committed to providing healthful children’s menu items.

Finalists will be announced this spring and the winners will be feted at an awards ceremony during NRA Show 2014 in Chicago in May. Chefs interested in showcasing their healthful kids’ menu options can apply here. The deadline for submissions has been extended to Jan. 15, 2014.

Created by the NRA in partnership with McCormick for Chefs, the Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge follows the criteria of the Association’s Kids LiveWell initiative. The program was developed in partnership with nutrition consultant Healthy Dining Inc. To qualify, menu items must consist of 600 or fewer calories and include such ingredients as low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains.

The contest involves an “industry-tested, kid-approved” approach. A panel of industry professionals selects finalists in four categories and 30 kid judges choose the winners at a cook-off event at McCormick’s flagship World of Flavors store in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Keith Esbin, corporate executive chef for Orlando, Fla.-based Boston Lobster Feast Restaurants and a winner of the inaugural Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge last year, said the contest showcases the potential for good, healthful kids’ meals at restaurants.

“Kids are being exposed to things that are healthy for them and that they are really excited about it,” he said. For operators, he noted, this is “the socially responsible thing to do. Not only that, kids today tend to dictate what and where their families and parents are going to eat. They are open to more healthful suggestions, which gives parents an opportunity to try different things and dine at different restaurants.”

Esbin, whose chicken Parmesan with spaghetti squash won last year in the category for independent restaurants or companies with fewer than 20 units, said the item was featured as a kids’ menu option at four of the company’s restaurants.

“Some of our adult customers ordered the dish, too,” he said. “We went through about 50 of them a month at each of the units, which is pretty good when you consider that this [concept] is an all-you-can-eat, buffet-style restaurant with 150 different offerings. Most people don’t come here to eat just one item, so to have them [choose] this one thing [represents] a pretty good performance.”

Jennifer Brower, regional executive chef for Compass Group’s Chartwells School Dining Services, said winning last year’s Kids Recipe Challenge in the managed-foodservice category made her feel like a celebrity.

“We got some really great PR out of this, and a lot of my schools have been running the recipe,” said Brower, who represents the Great Lakes region. “The whole experience has really put some new air in the tires. People may not realize this, but school systems hire a lot of chefs, and more than anything they have to learn all the rules and regulations we have to follow. You have to find ways to make it work.”

Brower, who won for her Chix-N-Cheddar Snappy Jalapeño Wrap, said she is most proud that Chartwells submitted the recipe into the company’s national database and more than 180 schools in her area are now using the recipe in their schools.

“I really wanted to make something I knew my grandchildren would like,” she said. “When you create recipes, you have to find ways to make them healthy and great tasting. People think the food [at contract companies] is cookie-cutter-like, but it’s not. We always make sure the food tastes great.”

Brower said that after she won last year’s Challenge, Chartwells sent her to several schools to sign autographs. Those schools used the recipe on their menus for the day.

“I got to talk with the kids, and that was really fun,” she said. “I got to be a celebrity for a few days. With all the cooking shows on TV today, the kids … look at chefs as rock stars and want to be one, too. I say, ride the ride.”

Pictured, top right: chef Keith Esbin; and above left, chef Jennifer Brower

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