Healthful kids’ offerings are increasingly becoming the focus of many operators, chefs and suppliers who are responding to initiatives from the White House, the National Restaurant Association and, most importantly, their customers.

“The business case is there, and I don’t know if it was a few years back,” Sue Hensley, the NRA’s senior vice president of public affairs and communications, told attendees at an NRA Show panel on how to make restaurants more kid-friendly.

Hensley pointed to data from surveys indicating that consumers that once eschewed items marked as better for you are now citing health and nutrition as important factors in deciding what to order in restaurants, albeit still well behind taste and price. She also noted that offering more healthful kids’ meals was a top trend cited by chefs from the American Culinary Federation polled by the NRA last year.

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First Lady Michelle Obama has been an advocate of more healthful kids’ meals and was an advocate for new school nutrition guidelines promulgated last year.

The NRA rolled out its Kids Live Well program in July of 2011 and currently has 135 restaurant brands with 40,000 locations participating in the program. Kids Live Well requires that the restaurant offer at least one item and a side dish on their kids’ menu that fit strict criteria based on U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines regarding total calories, fat, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy. Those items must be identified and promoted on the menu.

The NRA has teamed up with Healthy Dining to promote Kids Live Well items on, which allows for searching based on geography and also provides smartphone apps for the iPhone and Android.

Jesse Gideon, chief operating officer and corporate chef of Fresh to Order, an eight-unit “fine-fast” chain based in Atlanta, told NRN that fostering loyalty in kids can result in great customers for a lifetime, so he makes sure his kids’ items are both fun and nutritious.

Among Fresh to Order’s items that fit Kids Live Well criteria is grilled salmon with a combination of long-grain and short-grain rice and three types of pasta pearls — spinach, wheat berry and tomato. He serves carrot sticks on the side, he said, because they’re crunchy and satisfy the craving for texture that French fries and chips satisfy.

Most of his kids’ meals are $4, although his steak and salmon options, which come with an additional side of baby greens, are $6.

Jennifer Bilbro, founder of Out to Eat With Kids, a web site that promotes kid-friendly restaurants, said both price and nutrition are important when offering kids items. “Put yourself in the mother’s shoes,” she advised attendees of the “Kid Tested, Parent Approved” panel.

Citing a 2013 social media report by Babycenter, she said 73 percent of mothers use social media for brand and product recommendations, up by 66 percent from 2009, and that 81 percent of moms have smartphones, compared to 54 percent for the general population. “She’s social, she’s powerful, she’s got this device with her all the time," she said of today’s mother.

Bilbro pointed to areas in which restaurants should engage with kids and their parents. She said the menu should be laid out in an engaging way, pointing to menus that let kids circle the items they want. She also noted that restaurants should make clear on the menu what substitutions are available. “If I have five kids, I might not raise my hand and ask if I can substitute broccoli for French fries.”

She also suggested drinks either be included in the price of the kids menu, or that they cost no more than $1. “Mom needs to feel like she’s getting a break on something,” she said.

She also suggested offering healthful drinks, like soda water with a splash of lemonade and pieces of fruit. Similar “enhanced waters” were on display at supplier booths on the NRA show floor.

Contact Bret Thorn:
him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary