Time was when some processed mac n’cheese, deep fried chicken fingers (speaking colloquially of course--we all know that chickens don’t have fingers), buttered noodles, French fries, hot dogs and some plain pizza could pass for a typical kids menu in club dining rooms. Add a cute little four-piece box of crayons, an “activity menu” and some sweet soda served up in a spill-proof cup and you had all the ingredients needed to round out a child’s typical dining experience. It seemed common practice that if younger diners were just given “what they like”, a peaceful, tantrum-free family night out would be enjoyed by all; service staff included. Generally, any breaded, previously frozen, high carb, high sugar fare that kids were clamoring for would pass at mealtime. But with childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses on the rise, parents who are embracing a healthier and more active lifestyle for their families are not as accepting of these all too predictable menu options.
There are new kids on the block when it comes to menus that reflect healthy, nutritious preparations that are appealing to children and entice them to opt for more wholesome choices. Nutritionist Regan Jones, a registered dietitian and founding editor at Healthy Aperture acknowledges that while it may be difficult to please every child at every meal, the idea is keep things interesting and hopefully expose kids to new foods. But ultimately, “…to make sure there’s something on the table for everyone to enjoy.”
Turns out, many young diners aren’t always drawn to what has become the standard kids’ “fried, beige food”. They can be more adventurous and would be apt to explore other options with a little encouragement and creativity. Lynn Fredericks, founder of Family Cook Productions, an organization that teaches healthful family eating sees an opportunity to re-imagine and adapt menus that will be suitable and interesting for kids. “The idea that there is different food for children drives me nuts,” Fredericks said in a feature focusing on childrens' diets in the Washington Post. “Children will eat other foods. They will,” she said. “It’s just about how you present it.”
Many independent restaurants and national chains have revamped their kids’ menus recognizing that offering deconstructed versions of “adult” dinners is a winner for both adults and children. Featuring half-portions of grown-up entrées at a reduced price and flexibility when it comes to substitutions with assertive spices and more pungently flavored ingredients have become a recipe for success in accommodating sometimes timid, finicky young diners. Family-style options on menus offer variety and the opportunity to sample various dishes just a spoonful at a time and the potential for kids to find new favorite flavors.
Clubs that are now focusing on a family-welcoming culture and health-centered, lifestyle-driven activities are taking those practices straight into the dining room and offering programs that broaden kids’ exposure to the dining and culinary world. Many clubs are embracing this trend: offering young adult cooking classes and some clubs that have their own kitchen gardens are including vegetable gardening as part of summer camp programs. Some clubs see an opportunity for children to learn social skills and dining etiquette in a fun, safe, interactive environment. A club in the Midwest expanded their healthy kids’ menu initiative to offering custom-packed school lunches to go. The young diners of today are tomorrow’s members and welcoming kids into club dining venues can be the best first course in developing lifelong loyalty and a taste for a healthy future.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.