Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kids Live Well: Shaking Up Menus

If you know anything about me at all, you know I'm a huge fan of whole foods and cooking from scratch and being mindful of the things we put into our bodies.  Knowing that I can't always be at home cooking every meal the way I might want, we very definitely make compromises.  Eating out is generally a huge compromise, especially when you start to look at kids' meals.  If it isn't corn dogs, it's chicken nuggets that don't resemble any chicken I know or fries or macaroni and cheese.  While many restaurants in the past few years have started to make some changes and now offer more fruits on the side and milk instead of pop, it's still a challenge.

When I heard about the Kids LiveWell program and was invited to the National Restaurant Association to learn more about the program, I jumped at the chance.  And after wandering the show for just a day, let me tell you I could have moved in there and died happy.  I am thrilled that the National Restaurant Association is listening to consumers - yes, we do have a voice! - and helping to take action to make positive changes.  The program certifies menu items that meet certain nutritional standards from containing fewer than 600 calories for an entree with two or more servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and/or low fat dairy, among other requirements.

As a parent, I cheer this on.  As it is, when we go to a restaurant, the wee ones know how to read a menu and tend to make more healthful choices - sometimes with my guidance - but to know that there are significantly more options available and that restaurants are making a true effort to better meet the nutritional needs of children, well that brings a smile to my face.  I know what restaurants I will make an effort to patronize, and they're the 96 restaurants across the country that are currently participating in the program.

I love that the program doesn't simply focus on the big chains.  The program is open to any restaurant from a mom and pop place to the big guys - many of whom are already participating.  Any restaurant can sign up and have their menu items validated to ensure they meet the criteria, and I applaud this openness.  The program launched last July with just 19 members from Burger King to Chili's to Outback to Chevy's Fresh Mex.  More and more restaurants have since joined, and at the National Restaurant Association show, there were two more big names joining the club.

Kraft Foods is now a part of the Kids LiveWell program with their foodservice items, meaning that restaurants can now purchase select foodservice items and have those items count towards a Kids LiveWell program.  While I would much rather see every restaurant make all food from scratch, I know this isn't possible, and this is a great step towards making restaurant food a little bit healthier. 

Chick-fil-A also signed on with new kids meal options, and I'm especially excited about this because Chick-fil-A is just now coming to the Chicago area.  In fact, there's a new restaurant being built about ten minutes from me, and I love to see the progress they're making as I drive by it all the time.  Knowing that they offer grilled nuggets (with actual recognizable chicken) and "Buddy Fruits" which are pure blended fruit applesauces.  Both items are also gluten free, something I love that Chick-fil-A recognizes as a need.  Can you tell I'm excited about this?

With so many restaurants large and small participating, it can be hard to figure out where to eat that has a Kids LiveWell program.  At the National Restaurant Show, they also debuted a new smart phone app for both iPhones and Android devices that allows you to search for participating restaurants close to your current location or where you know you will be later.  Once you find a restaurant that sounds interesting, you can look to see what participating choices are available and the nutritional information for them.  I would love to see the app also include the allergen information for the big four at least, but this is at least a good start.  When you're looking for somewhere to eat while at home, there is the Healthy Dining Finder website where you can search for healthy options not just for kids' meals but for all healthier options on the menu.  I love the transparency that the restaurant industry is introducing, and I hope that this is a trend that continues.

This isn't a fast change, and as monumental as the changes have to be, it can't be an overnight fix.  Restaurants are taking steps, however, and I applaud this as a mom and a foodie.  I look forward to seeing what the next years will bring, and I know I'm voting with my pocketbook.  How about you?  What do you look for when you dine out?

In the interest of full disclosure, I was compensated for participating in the Kids LiveWell program; however, all opinions expressed are my own.

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