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Health Focus Driving Children’s Menu Options

June 25, 2014

I recently returned from the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago and every year I love attending this show. It’s a great opportunity for me and my team to learn about the latest technology and menu innovations that keep this industry moving forward.

In terms of menu trends, there seems to be an increased focus on healthy children’s meals. In fact, according to the NRA’s 2014 Restaurant Industry Forecast, healthful children’s menus are among the top 5 trends among both table service and limited-service operators for the coming year. A top five ranking in this menu category for the second straight year and its fifth year in the top 10.

These rankings come as no surprise to those of us in the industry because children’s menus have the ability to promote creativity, customization and healthful enhancement. Enough so that the NRA and other organizations have partnered to create the Kids LiveWell program, which was launched in 2011 to communicate healthful children’s menu options available at participating restaurants. Today, the program extends across 41,000 restaurant locations and features the nutritional information of children’s meals provided by those restaurants. The high number of restaurant locations show great strides in the effort to communicate the nutritional information of children’s menu items; however the listings come at a steep price for restaurant operators looking to influence parents’ dining decisions.

And while it’s true that several major restaurant chains — across all segments of this category — have improved the nutritional value of children’s menus, much more can still be done.

For example, while restaurant chains do a good job of sharing nutritional information online and in stores for children’s menus, consumers still have to pick and choose qualified Kids LiveWell options only listed on one specific app and website. By depending on apps and technology, we are moving away from an intimate connection with our food and the food preparation processes that are key aspects to health and specifically, children’s health.

Additionally, a portion of our U.S. population is not getting accurate nutritional information because they rely on less expensive chains for nutritional children’s meals. According to the 2014 Children’s Defense Fund report, “The State of America’s Children,” one in 9 children in 2012 lived in households where they lacked access to a consistent food supply. The report found that these children were especially vulnerable to obesity due to the risk factors associated with limited access to healthy and affordable food options and opportunities for physical activity.

These findings reflect the U.S. Consensus Bureau study in 2012 that found more than 16 percent of the population lived in poverty, including nearly 20 percent of children.

Although it is not the restaurant industry’s job to fix the problems associated with childhood obesity, the industry can take steps to ensure children of all socio-economic backgrounds have access to healthy meals.

For families impacted by poverty, they may not be able to afford a smartphone that can feature the Kid’s LiveWell App. They also may not have access to a computer. This means that parents may blindly follow restaurant nutritional labeling instead of more direct communication about the preparation style and ingredient lists of children’s menu items.

Not only does this impact the healthful offerings at issue, but also the menu items’ inclusion or exclusion of allergen ingredients. Most apps do not include an ingredient list or a special designation if the meal is gluten-free. Therefore, parents must take the extra steps necessary to ensure the health and safety of their children in regard to the menu options available to them. Parents may then decide to skip dining out or they will prepare a meal at home their child can take to the restaurant with them.

In order to fully capture the trust of these parents, we encourage restaurant operators to go the extra mile and indicate on paper menus, online menus or menu boards whether items contain allergen ingredients or are gluten free.

Also make sure your kitchen staff is properly trained on how to make children’s allergen-friendly and gluten-free menu items. There is a risk of cross contamination and cross contact that can change the entire meal’s nutrients without the consumer knowing. Take the extra step to communicate your food safety procedures to guests and flip the fear on their willingness to dine with you. Parents who have children with special dietary needs are looking for brands they can trust. Earn that trust and watch them come back for more.