Challenging children’s cuisine

Posted on March 1, 2015 by Amy Hanson

Pizza, burgers, pasta, chicken tenders. These dishes aren’t generally synonymous with healthy eating, but scan any kids menu and you’re bound to find these options coming out of restaurant kitchens across the country. It’s a vicious cycle for diners and dining establishments that some initiatives and restaurants in the Fox Cities are hoping to break.

About two and half years ago, area healthcare agencies and providers teamed with restaurants to begin SmartPlate. According to the initiative’s website, “The mission of SmartPlate is to make it easier for people who want to eat healthy to have that option be identified and available in the restaurant setting.”

The focus began with adults and is now moving to children.

Evan Elrod enjoys a healthy meal of grilled chicken skewers and fresh pears with a honey dipping sauce at Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant in Appleton. Photo by Julia Schnese

Evan Elrod enjoys a healthy meal of grilled chicken skewers and fresh pears with a honey dipping sauce at Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant in Appleton.
Photo by Julia Schnese

“It’s a struggle, it’s a challenge for families to find healthy meal options, especially with kids menus,” says Sarah Wright, public health nurse with the Winnebago Health Department and re:TH!NK, Winnebago’s Healthy Living Partnership.

A statistic from the National Restaurant Association on SmartPlate’s website, notes that Americans are spending half of their food budgets on restaurant food, which is up from 1955 when it was only 25 percent. Obesity rates also have quadrupled among children ages 6-11 since 1970, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “More than 23 million children and teens in the United States — nearly one in three young people — are overweight or obese,” the foundation states.

“There’s a lot of talk out there about eating right, and a lot of misinformation,” says Scott Roekle, director of operations for the Supple Restaurant Group.

He’s beginning the process with the Supple Restaurant Group by “redefining what healthy is.”

Good Choices

Wright admits this isn’t an overnight process and it’s also a matter of reaching youth early to stress healthy eating. Most children form their habits by age 8, she adds.

“The biggest challenge is you can make the option available, but you need the youth to choose them,” she says. “Yes, you can have the corn dog or hamburger, but you have to have a fruit or vegetable for the side.”

Learning from school systems also working to implement healthy choices into their lunch programs has been a benefit, Wright notes.

“In general, restaurants are looking not only for the recommendations, but also ‘how do we do that.’ We have to help them make the demand and tell people that these are good choices,” she says.

When dining, the majority of an individual’s plate should be fruits or vegetables, which tend to be the more cost-effective items for restaurant owners, Wright said of the win-win opportunity. She recognizes that just as restaurants may need assistance getting a a menu off the ground, that families also are looking for identifiable and affordable options when they open a menu.

“I do think it’s a step in the right direction anytime we’re giving children more fruits and vegetables,” says Wright.

Slicing and dicing

Generally, restaurants will serve apple slices as a healthy meal side, the problem is they’re usually paired with caramel, Roekle explains.

“Culturally, that’s what we’ve done and now we’re trying to start talking about doing it differently,” he adds. “It was taking apples off the menu and taking away the calories and giving kids another option.”

Supple opted for pears. And, for a bit of added sweetness — while still being healthy — paired them with honey. Roekle, however, wanted to make the healthy choices about more than just a logo on their kids menu.

The Supple Restaurant Group paired with Kids Live Well, an initiative of the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining, which developed specific guidelines for kids menus. Fox River Brewing Company and the Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant locations in Oshkosh and Appleton have been providing healthy options for almost a year now. For example, each meal comes with a glass of skim milk. Parents will find meal options featuring grilled chicken skewers and whole grain pasta.

“Parents come into a restaurant and they want to make sure their kids are happy,” says Roekle. “We have given them a clear and concise package.”

On the side

“I think a good way to look at the menu is to look over the whole thing, including the appetizers or ala carte options,” says Brenda Leigh, a registered dietician with ThedaCare who has four children of her own. “Appetizers are tricky because they’re mixed with the cheese or higher-fat options. … The sides are a place to start. Don’t be afraid to ask for something that’s not on the menu.”

A salad bar or cafeteria also can be a potential healthy option depending on what’s loaded on a plate. ThedaCare recently revamped its cafeteria options, which is open for public dining. A newly integrated label system now lets visitors know what kind of choices they’re making. Green labels indicate freshly grown options like fruits and vegetables, yellow labels indicate some processing and red labels are reserved for the options including fats, sugars and salts. ThedaCare’s guidelines were used in the creation of SmartPlate.

No matter the choice, however, Leigh encourages families to think about what they’re eating overall and “not eat out as often.” In Leigh’s opinion, children also shouldn’t be rewarded with food as it sends the wrong message. For those who are dining out on a regular basis, start by looking for healthier choices.

“For most people, you can ease into it. You do want the kids to understand,” she adds.

“I don’t care if my kids order French fries because we don’t eat out that often,” she says. Leigh has distinguished food in her household as “sometimes foods” and “always foods,” instead of “good vs. bad.” Sometimes foods, like chocolate milk and sugar cereals should be limited to twice a day.

“That just keeps the balance and teaches them to regulate,” explains Leigh who adds that a child-sized portion is about the size of their fist.

The next time you take your children out to eat, challenge them to order something new.

“It gets kids to eat something a little different,” Roekle says. “It’s nice that they can have something they feel good about ordering.”

“There isn’t anybody better that can make decisions for their kids than a parent. If they so desire, they can make these decisions knowing they’re healthy,” he adds.


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