Weighty menu considerations

by Joel Crews
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The First Lady’s “war on obesity” and especially her efforts to promote healthy eating choices and pushing exercise among the country’s children is a campaign everyone should support, regardless of their partisanship. After negotiating with the National Restaurant Association over the past year and by working alongside key dietitians in the foodservice industry, one of the small steps Mrs. Obama’s team made was including what pundits claimed was a watered down provision requiring restaurants to print nutritional information on menus, which was even stipulated in President Obama’s health care law. I am hopeful Mrs. Obama will wield her influence to get a bigger number of players in the foodservice segment to do more to promote healthier eating among some of their more influential diners: kids. Especially in the casual segment, there is an obvious opportunity to appeal to this group, which at least indirectly influences most families’ decision of where to eat when a dining out location is being weighed.

As a parent of a tweener and a kindergartener, I know that when preparing to eat out, too often the decision of where to dine is a tug of war pitting kids vs. parents. When it comes to venues involving sitting down and ordering, too often the parents are given a Bible-thick menu packed with mouthwatering photos and enough cuisine options to overwhelm even the hungriest diners. Thanks in part to Mrs. Obama’s efforts, a growing number of today’s menus even include calorie counts and icons indicating the health attributes of various entrées. Contrast that with many eateries’ kids’ menus, which are too often designed to function as an origami-esque crayon holder and are adorned with more tic-tac-toe games and word scrambles than eating options. It seems that as soon as parents sit down to be served by their favorite suspender-wearing waiter, they are forced to forego any meaningfully healthy eating options for their kids. Usually in fine print, are options like: chicken nuggets, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and cheeseburgers- most often served with fries (or worse, “bottomless steak fries”) all for under $5. A more healthy option can be had by ordering from the Glamour-shot menu, but most parents like me aren’t willing to dole out $8-$10 to feed each kid when dining out.

Having worked in restaurant management for a decade of my previous life, I recall how each December I would sit down with the executive chef to hammer out the coming year’s menu. We painstakingly incorporated suggestions from diners, scoured trade magazines, cookbooks and food technology textbooks to develop offerings to reflect the latest and greatest food trends and always included a handful of house mainstays. Then, when it came time to address the kid’s menu, we’d focus first on which dot-to-dot image we would offer and how many tic-tac-toe games we could fit on the page before squeezing in the same kid’s food offerings from the previous year’s menu.

Twenty years later, it would make sense to this old restaurateur to put as much effort into offering as many healthy, creative offerings as possible for tot-sized diners and use cartoon characters, super-heroes or a dinosaur theme to accentuate their attributes in a kid-friendly manner, complete with the same type of flashy photos and visual elements used in the “big kid’s” menu. In a story published in The New York Times earlier this month, Lanette Kovachi, a corporate dietician for Subway who has participated in several conference calls with Mrs. Obama’s food advisers, said the foodservice industry has an opportunity to be heard in this process. As the First Lady’s team works to foster partnerships in the food industry to cut the rates of obesity in the country, “they really want a cooperative relationship with the food industry,” Kovachi said, “and they’re looking at industry to come up with ideas.” Reading between the lines, it sounds like the clock is ticking and this segment of the food business has an opportunity to lead itself or face being led.
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