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National Restaurant Association - 5 ways to entice kids to healthful menu choices

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5 ways to entice kids to healthful menu choices

Image Grilled Chicken Dipping Sticks

Kids LiveWell meal at Bluewater Grill

Make the healthful choice the easy choice on children’s menus. “If the first item is healthy and sounds intriguing, kids might want it,” says James Ulcickas, owner of Bluewater Grill, a Newport Beach, Calif., seafood restaurant.

Bluewater Grill’s five locations are among the 42,000 restaurants that participate in the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program. Qualifying meals must consist of an entrée, side and beverage with no more than 600 calories. Meals must consist of nutrient-rich foods, including two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy. They also must limit sodium, fat and sugar.

Upgrading the nutrition content of kids’ items doesn’t have to be difficult, Ulcickas says. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Offer healthful modifications of not-so-nutritious items. Consider using pasta made from brown rice or other gluten-free grain in children’s meals, instead of semolina.
  • Serve popular fruit and vegetables as standard sides, and downplay fries. Bluewater Grill offers edamame, salad, rice and mixed vegetables – and lists them before mashed potatoes and fries.
  • Create a unique presentation. After looking at trays with compartments and containers shaped like cars and other items at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, Ulcickas decided to use bento boxes. He didn’t want to use sharp skewers for kids’ grilled dipping sticks, so Bluewater Grill skewers fish, chicken, shrimp and steak on bamboo chopsticks. Each bento box comes with carrot sticks and fruit, in addition to the protein and side item.
  • Make healthful items your menu standards. Not-so-healthful items should be the special request. Use small text to let guests know items can be served fried, instead of making grilling, steaming and poaching the afterthought.
  • When kids come in, you want them to automatically order the healthful options, Ulcickas says. “So much of eating is habitual,” Ulcickas says. “We have regular guests because of their kids. They love the little boxes. Even if they order chicken fingers, they’re still getting fruit, carrots and different colors and textures.”
  • Look for main menu options that you can adapt as grilled items for a children’s menu. Sweeten with a little honey or agave nectar.

Ulcickas attributes the success of his Kids LiveWell offerings to his executive chef, Brian Hirsty, who died March 10 from a rare bone marrow disease.

Over the 17 years Ulcickas and Hirsty worked together, they opened eight restaurants. In that time, Hirsty tried to get kids to develop adventurous eating habits and worked to address childhood obesity. 

“Too often parents pick their battles with kids and are coerced to make unhealthy food choices to avoid a confrontation,” Hirsty has said of the restaurant group’s participation in Kids LiveWell. “By making the healthy choice the easy, default choice, by the way we designed the menu, we were able to get kids to order a healthy meal more often without even knowing it. 

“By designing menu items in a way that are visually interesting and using high quality ingredients like free range chicken, our kids’ items also taste great so kids love them. Just because they are kids does not mean they don’t appreciate high-quality ingredients.”

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