Challenging the Status Quo of What Children Eat in Restaurants

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuWhen 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, ‬and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter‭ ‬@AmyMyrdalMiller‭.‬