Managing Kids’ Diets
By Pat Dando
The good news is that strides have been made to improve kids’ diets, especially through school venues. The bad news is that the foods kids prefer aren’t very healthy.
For the most part, schools have adjusted their menus, eliminating soda pop and even snacks. According to Eric Peterson, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), schools currently are working with suppliers to reformulate pizza crusts and breadings to include whole grains.
But it will be difficult to translate the “good-for-you” benefits to kids and even parents. Even if that is successful, it will be a greater challenge to have anyone understand the differences between a breaded school lunch product and a quick-service restaurant product. How do you explain to kids, parents and teachers that the chicken fingers at school are good to eat, but the same thing at a fast food restaurant is bad?
It is, indeed, a sad commentary that children’s car seats are going to be made larger to accommodate the expanding girth of young children. And it is frightening to review the latest figures on overweight children.
Fully one-third (25 million) of children and teens in the United States are either overweight or close to being overweight. A lot of that has to be related to the fact that their parents and/or role models are overweight, so heaviness is acceptable by a large portion of today’s society.
Certainly, 99% of parents care about their kids and are concerned — at least to some degree — about their fitness and nutrition. However, between lack of knowledge and time constraints, it is difficult to be proactive. Parents are more likely to give kids a processed snack than prepare them something fresh.
More parents are part of two-income households, and that equates to more meals being sourced away from home for either in-home or restaurant consumption. Many experts claim that neither option is very good, especially if the focus is on children’s health and nutrition.
It’s a Matter of Weight
Kids between the ages of 2 and 19 are putting on the pounds at record numbers, with obesity reaching the high double-digits.
Source: National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, 2006
A review of Mintel Group data from the fourth-quarter 2005 shows that restaurants do little to encourage healthy eating among kids.
It might be helpful for foodservice operators and parents to realize that the focus on nutrition and fitness is here to stay. In addition, there is growing attention and mounting opposition on how restaurants serve children. With consumer “no” votes against unhealthful restaurant and carryout foods will be a corresponding decrease in consumer expenditures on “unacceptable” menu items.
A growing number of parents are beginning to focus on nutrition because they feel it affects their kids’ health and well-being. Since there is a real lack of information and education on the subject, more people are seeking professional help. As with many food trends, this starts at the top of the socio-economic strata and works it way down.
Fortunately, a child doesn’t have to be obese for a red flag to be raised. The challenge is finding help. Currently, it is not coming from the foodservice industry. Many claim that the industry is blocking progress in this area. More and more, the government and others tell us what’s wrong with our foods, but seldom do they tell us how to make it right.
There are a number of food and nutrition specialists — dieticians, chefs, physical fitness experts, etc. — who are finding that parents are seeking their consultation for themselves and their families. Some of the important things to keep in mind are:
• Kids like stronger flavor profiles
• Kids eat with their eyes, ears and noses
• Sensory is very important
• Kids will eat just about anything, once they try something and see parents/peers eating it
• If they don’t eat it the first time, keep on trying
• Portion control is as important for kids as adults
• Kids tend to eat what is on their plates
• Balance between portion size and value is critical
• Independent/full-service operators tend to offer more flexibility
• Parents and kids see value (and flavor) in organic/fresh foods and are willing to pay a premium
• Carryout can provide a positive family experience, especially with a fresh salad and veggies
• Kids have more sensitive palates than adults
• Genetics only plays a role in 2-3 percent of obesity cases, thus exercise/physical activity is necessary for all

There appears to be an overwhelming consensus that foodservice is doing an inadequate job of serving the needs of kids and families. Parents are confused and feel they lack the knowledge needed to make good choices to benefit their kids. The lack of support from the National Restaurant Association with regard to publication of nutritional data is frustrating. If not the nutritional information, they could at least supply an effective alternative.
Rather than ignoring reality, kids should be using their math skills to analyze their food choices: “If I have ‘x’ number of calories for a soft drink, I only have ‘y’ left for my sandwich.”
Editor’s Note: Pat Dando is a contributing editor to Stagnito’s New Products Magazine. This article originally ran in the May 2006 issue.