by Cari Price, Corporate Development Chef, Food IQ
In 2008, medical research findings proclaiming that one-third of American children and adolescents were either overweight or obese shocked the nation. Admirably, however, in only four short years, a number of food manufactures, motivated politicians, concerned parents, restaurant operators, growers, and volunteer chefs have diligently blazed trails with new initiatives to help curb the over-consumption of calorie-dense foods with low-nutritional value that contribute to our children’s expanding waistlines.
In recent years, significant efforts to improve the eating habits of children have been initiated by the foodservice industry as well as the federal government. Arguably, most notable is Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which encourages families to commit to healthier eating habits and lifestyles. In 2010, internationally recognized chef Jamie Oliver began his "Food Revolution" television series, a campaign aiming to completely overhaul federal meal programs in public schools, and in 2011, Oliver launched the Big Rig Teaching Kitchen, a mobile kitchen staffed by culinary professionals that travels to communities and college campuses across the country, offering five-week courses structured around affordable family meals made fresh with whole ingredients. Even The Walt Disney Company recently announced it will limit junk food advertisements on programs which target children audiences 12 and under.
A large prevention initiative by the National Restaurant Association in partnership with healthydiningfinder.com, is also encouraging restaurants nationwide to develop and post kids’ menu items that meet healthy nutritional requirements—the foods must be 600 calories or fewer and no more than 35 percent of those calories can be fats. The program, aptly called, Kids LiveWell, is on its way to changing millions of lives.
Last month, former President Bill Clinton praised restaurateurs and foodservice manufactures for their contributions made toward one year of childhood obesity prevention, stating “What works is cooperation. Childhood obesity is a 30-year problem with no single cause, no single solution and no villain.”
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says health-conscious programs such as Kids LiveWell are exciting for parents because one of the leading causes of childhood obesity is eating out. "Healthier kids’ meals at restaurants are important because children are getting about a third of their calories from eating [in restaurants outside the home]," she said. The program launched with 19 chain restaurant participants proudly revealing their healthy kids’ menu options and in just one year restaurant participation has more than quadrupled.
The complex relationship between childhood obesity and restaurant foods was recently examined by Carol Tice, contributor at forbes.com, who claimed many of the qualifying kids’ menu items existed before Kids LiveWell was created, meaning healthy options were already available in restaurant chains. Tice went on to identify what she understands as a bigger problem: "We’ve had access to healthy kids’ meals all along—our kids just aren’t eating them."
The issue of kids not wanting healthy options is why some chains have taken recipe development efforts. For example, McDonald’s has downsized their kids-sized fry and added fresh apples slices to each Happy Meal. Other chains such as Friendly’s have developed an entirely new customizable menu with healthy options that meet the Kids LiveWell program’s nutrition requirements. Legal Sea Foods has even consulted with Harvard School of Public Health to seek nutritional menu development advice, which helped the restaurant earn the top honor in Parents Magazine’s list of Best Family Restaurants.
In the near future, as restaurants create more and more healthy, fun menu items that kids will enjoy eating, we can feel good about our industry and know we are making a positive difference in peoples’ lives. Childrens’ entrees really should be the healthiest meals because kids are growing and forming eating habits that will affect their health for the rest of their lives.
* Cari Price is Corporate Development Chef at Food IQ. Her experience and expertise in nutrition, food marketing, and the restaurant industry give her clients a unique advantage in the development of strategically relevant menu ideas.