Give kids healthier restaurant meals ... and they'll eat them!

kid's bento box lunch
CC BY 2.0 Wendy Copley

We've come to associate kids' menus with junky food, but these researchers found that when healthy food is offered by default, both kids and parents are quite happy.

Give a kid a sandwich made with multi-grain bread, served with a salad and strawberries on the side, and they’re just as likely to eat it as a plate of chicken fingers and fries. This is what researchers at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition found after conducting a six-month study at a full-serve restaurant chain called The Silver Diner, located in Virginia and Maryland.

The Silver Diner decided to change its kids’ menu in response to growing consumer demand for healthier kids’ food. It added “real food” items such as teriyaki salmon, spaghetti with mixed vegetables, a plated turkey dinner, and bison sliders to the menu, alongside the usual chicken tenders and hot dogs. It also began offering healthy sides by default, such as mixed vegetables, brown rice, salad and strawberries. Fries and soda were pulled from the kids’ menu entirely, although customers could still order them.

kids' menu© The Silver Diner

The study, which spanned the pre- and post-menu change periods in the restaurants and tracked a total of 350,000 kids’ meals, found that 57 percent of customers ordered fries prior to the change, but only 22 percent specially requested them after they disappeared from the menu. Around 40 percent of customers stuck with whatever sides they were given by default, regardless of how healthy they were.

The study shows that customers will often choose the easiest, fastest option. Parents who are frequent restaurant goers, perhaps tired after extracurricular activities and just wanting to get some food into their kids, are unlikely to make special orders and tend to prefer the default option. Since so many American families now eat at restaurants multiple times per week, it’s important to target restaurant menus in order to improve the nutritional profiles of meals and to ensure that kids are getting better quality food.

Kids, too, don’t get enough credit for what they’re capable of eating and enjoying. They have been receptive to the menu changes. Chef Ype Von Hengst of The Silver Diner told NPR:

“Let me tell you, the kids lost it for our low-sodium teriyaki chicken. And meanwhile, moms were like, ‘Wow! I didn’t even know my kid liked salmon!’”

The Silver Diner, whose menu boasts that 60 percent of its meat is sourced locally and is free from nitrates, antibiotics, and added hormones, has seen sales climb steadily since the changes, despite a slight increase in prices.

Hopefully more restaurants will follow suit. The earlier and more frequently that children are exposed to good food, the sooner and more easily they will establish healthy eating habits.

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