kids' meals

Are restaurants missing the mark with kids’ meals?

By Jeni Marinucci

It wasn’t long ago that traditional kids’ meals were adult meals – just smaller. But with dining out becoming an ever-growing part of our culture, for reasons including easing time constraints on busy families, many parents still face challenges finding healthy meals kids will actually eat. Is the scourge of the “dinosaur-shaped chicken fingers and fries” here to stay? What will it take for restaurants to shift their thinking? Is this a mandate from government or does it need to come from consumers? It’s a case of chicken-and-egg, but something has to give.

American restaurant owners have some programs to help them with keeping things healthy in the food industry, although there are still many, many challenges to overcome. Members of the American Restaurant Association have the option of participating in the “Kids Live Well” program, which helps QSR and sit-down establishments with providing healthier options for kids. As of March 2017, there are no similar programs in Canada. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, particularly for younger Canadians, this is a growing concern for parents; parents, who like other typical Canadians, are eating outside their homes up to several times per week.

Joyce Reynolds is the executive vice president of government affairs for Restaurants Canada, and she tells Global News that Canadian restaurants are always looking for ways to make eating out healthier by offering better selections for those who desire them. Reynolds says, “Restaurant owners and operators in Canada take the health and nutrition of their customers seriously, and continuously respond to customer demand by introducing healthier options and alternatives for adults and children alike.” She adds, “To meet customer needs, many restaurants make it easy to access nutritional options.”

This is done by offering alternatives in place of past-favourite treats, like offering milk or water in place of higher sugar juices and pop. Ultimately, food choice is up to parents and children who are ordering and paying for the meals. Having choice can be a boon for restaurant owners, however, especially if more “adult” meals are offered in tandem with more traditional kids’ meals like grilled cheese and macaroni.

Parents can help the issue of eating-out-fussiness before they even leave home. Global News spoke with Elke Sengmueller, an Ontario-based registered dietitian, and she gives some great dining strategies to parents looking to improve their child’s palate:

“Take a look at the menu before going to the restaurant and decide in advance that there are three options your child can choose from on the menu,” she says. “It gives your child a sense of control over what they can order, and it gives you the power to zero in on healthier options. This will also prevent them from lingering over a menu and getting caught up in the emotion of that.”

As a mom of one miniature gourmand who prefers salmon and green beans to anything remotely resembling a child’s meal, I know firsthand that a varied menu selection is important to parents – especially the exciting idea of offering “half-sized” traditional menu items. Because I also have another child who is firmly in the deep-fried-anything category when we eat out, having BOTH these options etches a restaurant firmly on our “visits often” list.