When I worked for Westlake Village, CA-based Dole Food Company, running the company’s 5-A-Day Kids program, everyone thought kids would only eat baby carrots. Imagine our delight when we discovered many kids love raw broccoli. Shocking, right? The assumption by most adults is that kids will only eat familiar foods, sweet foods, nothing green. Could these assumptions be keeping kids from exploring a broader range of foods and flavors?
We are born with innate preferences for sweet and umami-rich foods. These preferences encourage babies to consume breast milk, which is rich in lactose (milk sugar) and glutamic acid (the source of umami). Breast-fed babies get a range of flavor through breast milk while formula-fed babies get a consistent flavor experience. There is some research suggesting formula-fed babies may take longer to accept new flavors in foods and beverages.
In addition to our innate love of sweet and umami-rich foods, we are also born with the instinct to avoid bitterness, a trait of many poisons found in nature. Sweet tastes tell the brain “This is rich in calories,” while bitter tastes scream at the brain “Danger.”
As babies move from liquids to solids, experts recommend introducing vegetables prior to fruits to help them get accustomed to the bolder, sometimes bitter flavors in vegetables before trying fruit. Experts also recommend giving babies ample time to accept a new food, introducing the food 10 or more times before determining if the child really doesn’t like it, especially bitter foods.
This transition can be quite challenging for new parents. Going with the tried-and-true foods is often less time-consuming and less frustrating. Giving babies time to adapt to new flavors and textures can help set the stage for adventurous eating.
Adventurous eating for infants and toddlers depends largely on the parents’ preferences. Many child-feeding experts share stories of parents who lament the fact the only vegetable their kid will eat is French fries. If that’s the only vegetable that’s offered, what do you expect will happen with food preferences?
Kids’ menus in restaurants today tend to look the same. Chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs dominate. Many in the restaurant industry say this is what sells. And parents say this is what my child will eat.
Just like during the transition to solid foods, the time and money spent in restaurants can be very frustrating for parents if children refuse to eat. Finding foods kids love can make the dining experience much more enjoyable, which can bring repeat business to a restaurant.
Campus dining professionals and K-12 leaders will all attest to the fact children’s palates are much more sophisticated than most adults believe. We have two generations of kids who have grown up eating out more frequently in a food culture that is much more global compared to 30 years ago. Restaurants that focus on smaller portions of “grown up” food will have more success than operators that only feature the same bland, brown food most operations put on their kids’ menus. Kids are aspirational; they want to eat like older siblings, like their parents. Operations that give them an opportunity to eat like an adult with a child-size portion are a step ahead of their competitors.
What else can be done to improve kids’ menus? My best advice is to start by making the familiar more exotic, more healthful, with more produce. Here are ideas for the top five categories of foods currently featured on kids’ menus.
• Nuggets: Can you offer a more unique dipping sauce? How about Romesco sauce, a.k.a. Spanish ketchup? How about chicken satay with peanut sauce?
• Center of the Plate Chicken: Can you offer a chicken with mole sauce? Or a Thai chicken curry? How about simple roasted chicken?
• Sandwiches: Think about the hand-held heroes of world cuisines (i.e., tortas, tacos, empanadas, tamales, burritos, etc.), and how they can play a role on the menu. Produce-centric salsas and other sauces are often the gateway to greater produce consumption when paired with a hand-held entrée.
• Burgers: Can you add a new flavor element with a new sauce? How about a smoky chipotle sauce? Can you add more color and vegetables to a burger? Could you add a roasted red pepper? What are you pairing with the burger? Sweet potato fries? Pineapple “fries”? Can you offer a vegetarian version?
• Grilled Cheese: What type of breads could you use? Could you add a dipping sauce that offers more color, flavor and vegetables? Can you create a kids’ quesadilla that also includes vegetables?
I’ll continue this conversation on stage at the 2017 Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum on Dec. 14 at the New York Produce Show, and I’ll share insights from operators in a future column. I hope to see you in New York.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. You can learn more about her business at farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.