Menu Innovations | August 2012 | By Barney Wolf

Child’s Play

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One of the originators of kids’ meals, McDonald’s, is a long-time favorite for kids—and a target for critics due to that.

Last year, responding to mounting pressure from parents, nutritional experts, and others, the company set new goals to reduce sodium, sugar, and saturated fat in its menu. Happy Meals, which originally launched in 1979, were changed to include fruit and half the french fries as before.

The Happy Meals, with hamburger, cheeseburger, or four-piece Chicken McNuggets, also include fat-free chocolate milk, low-fat white milk, or apple juice, although soda is an option parents can choose. The meals have fewer than 600 calories.

The chain also launched an ad campaign called “Champions of Play,” which celebrates active lifestyles and healthy, balanced eating by kids.

“We are seeing behavior shift slightly among what is being ordered, because families are eating differently than they used to when they go out,” says spokeswoman Danya Proud.

“They may order a Happy Meal because kids love the specialness of their own meal, or they may share Chicken McNuggets, fries, and then get their own drinks.”

McDonald’s is not part of Kids LiveWell, but many other independent and chain restaurants that offer healthier menu items—dubbed better-for-you because of the negative connotation of healthy—joined the initiative.

A few companies had to tweak their items to qualify for the program. Others, such as Burger King, did not.

Several Burger King offerings that met the initiative’s criteria were the burger, four-piece chicken tenders, and BK Kids Breakfast Muffin Sandwich kids’ meals. The meals also have Apple Fries (apple pieces in the shape of fries) and a choice of fat-free milk or apple juice.

Zpizza’s range of better-for-you items for adults can also meet the Kids LiveWell criteria. The pizzas are on the regular menu, and the child’s portion is two slices of pizza, plus a salad (no dressing) and water as the beverage.

“Kids love cheese pizza,” says Brandi Babb, vice president of training and franchise relations for the Irvine, California–based chain. “Our mozzarella is part skim and doesn’t have any added hormones, so we are proud to be able to serve this” to children.

The chain’s Kids LiveWell pizza offerings feature a variety of fresh vegetables, including one with roasted yams. That particular pizza also has all-natural chicken breast.

Zpizza is looking to add additional Kids LiveWell menu items. “We see a great opportunity in this program and look forward to growing it,” Babb says.

Canada-based Extreme Pita had already made some menu alterations to meet that nation’s Health Check program before joining the NRA’s initiative.

“Our brand is all about healthy,” says Nancy Cogger, director of marketing for the chain, which has 200 units in the U.S. and Canada. “For Health Check, we had to work on our sodium levels, which is a big contributor of making things taste good, but we did it.”

The children’s meals have fun names like Beefosaurus Rex Pita (Philly steak) and Fee-Fi-Fo-Hummus Pita, which include baked pita chips and water.

Chick-fil-A is among the most recent chains to join Kids LiveWell. The company introduced grilled chicken nuggets in January as an option for its kids’ meals, which also include Buddy Fruits applesauce and milk or lemonade as a beverage.

“We’ve had hand-breaded [chicken] nuggets for years,” says Jodie Worrell, senior nutrition consultant for the Atlanta-based company. They remain on the menu, but the grilled nuggets reduce fat by 86 percent and calories by 56 percent.

“We want parents to know that they do have a choice,” she adds.

It’s not just big companies looking to give parents the tools to get their kids to eat better when dining out. Take the Solar Drive-In, a small eatery in Springfield, Minnesota.

“I’m personally concerned about seeing the way kids eat,” says Deanne Bryer, who with her husband, Steve, and son, Luke, acquired the local eatery in 2008. “I was looking for a way to have a choice for parents without hitting them over the head.”

Working with Kids LiveWell provided the answer, allowing the company to work with the program’s nutritional experts they normally couldn’t afford. The healthy children’s offerings include grilled chicken bites and a flour chicken taco. The suggested side is carrots and celery.

“We had a sautéed chicken breast on the menu, and some moms would buy it without the bun and ask us to cut it up for the kids. The nutritionist said that would work,” Bryer says. “We previously had a chicken taco, so we modified the size” to meet initiative guidelines.

Kraft developed its Kids LiveWell menu items for all types of restaurants shortly after the program was announced.

“We met with our chef and our nutrition experts and looked at the nutrition criteria and asked, ‘Is this realistic for Kraft?’” explains Barbara Pritikin, senior marketing manager. It turned out that “we had the products in our portfolio” to provide solutions for restaurants.

Nine Kraft brands are used in the company’s eight kids’ meals, such as a turkey burger and strawberries or macaroni and cheese stuffed chicken with broccoli and strawberries. The beverage is a Capri Sun fruit drink, also part of the Kraft production family.

“It really comes down to the offerings on the menu,” Pritikin says. “That’s what parents are looking for.”

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