Familiar foods with healthier ingredients and reduced sodium is a positive start to improving kids’ menus. (Photo: Las Canarias & Ostra)
In the 1960’s, the healthy part of a “kid’s” meal at a restaurant was the cherry in our Shirley Temples.
And who doesn’t remember slathering cold butter on her crackers as the waiter brought us mini steaks and fries, followed by chocolate pudding with a whipped cream topper. Even dentists gave us a lollipop after a teeth cleaning!
But the world has certainly changed – and not a bite too soon when it comes to curbing America’s child obesity epidemic.
The Fat Fight
According to the Centers for Disease Control, children are mirroring their older role models when it comes to excess weight. For sadly, the obesity rate “has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.”
Further, the link between poverty and higher obesity rates is clearly delineated – largely because food deserts, where lower-income families cannot find fresh fruits and vegetables, remain a striking problem in the U.S.
However, the restaurant industry and schools nationwide are stepping up; and believe it or not, McDonald’s is leading the charge. H.G. Parsa, professor at the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality at University of Denver, has been studying trends in healthier kids dining for years. He says it all began under the golden arches.
“McDonald’s is a trendsetter,” he says. “People follow the lead of McDonalds, who was the first to introduce chicken nuggets, and the first to introduce a kids’ menu. Then when they introduced a healthy kids menu (in 2012), others followed.”
It’s a message that has permeated beyond the coasts, where people typically think of slimmer waistlines and trends.
And this is key, because according to the CDC, in 2013 by the time kids got to high school in Texas, for example, the obesity rate was 16 percent.
This is one reason the state is making inroads to reverse its bigger-is-better reputation.
Chicken fingers made with organic chicken and lighter panko breadcrumbs are on the kids’ menu at Las Canarias and Ostra, two acclaimed restaurants in San Antonio.
“We use organic Texas chicken in our chicken fingers,” says San Antonio’s Omni La Mansión del Rio’s Shane Bruns, who’s making them with Asian panko, a crustless-based twist on the western breadcrumb. “It makes it lighter, and the not-so-heavy breading gives a crunchier taste.” Bruns is a former chef, and healthy food advocate, having worked in some of the country’s finest restaurants. He currently serves as the head of F&B at La Mansion del Rio and Mokara Hotel & Spa – which are home to Las Canarias and Ostra, two of the city’s most acclaimed dining establishments.
Bruns, a Colorodan who studied the culinary arts in San Francisco, is a big believer in the farm-to-table concept, which he’s brought with him to Texas. He also is able to explain why, for example, choosing hormone-free organic milk is key to keeping kids from growing too large, too fast.
He also knows not everything can be organic, or perfectly sourced, or low-fat when it comes to serving kids at restaurants.
“We try to balance what we think kids will eat or want to eat, with health-conscious parents wanting their kids to be a little healthier,” he says.
So he’ll whip up a PB&J, but uses honey whole wheat bread, organic peanut butter or almond butter, and a fresh fruit spread sans preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.
School’s Out, Nutrition’s Not
Another passionate promoter of healthier kids’ eating is Riverside, California’s Kirsten Roloson, assistant director of nutrition services for the school district. She’s been instrumental in bringing healthier options to students. “About 65 percent of our produce is grown locally; we are fortunate,” says Roloson.
Children from the aforementioned food deserts are not only being exposed to, but partaking enthusiastically of choices at salad bars at 30 elementary schools and “produce markets” at six lower-income schools.
She talked about a boy who couldn’t believe he got seconds at the salad bar.
“I’m just so happy it’s all-you can eat because now I don’t have to worry about dinner,’” he said. “Sometimes I don’t get dinner at home.”
Roloson is rightly proud of how the district is helping boys like him eat healthier, not just with the salads but now through a meal program that means a healthy breakfast and supper, too.
Guidelines Help Balance Food Choices
Nationwide measures – from the government’s Healthy Schools program to the Kids LiveWell program employed by several dozen restaurants in partnership with the National Restaurant Association – are helping parents improve their kids’ dining choices.
For example, at 140 restaurant brands nationwide – from Denny’s to Boston Market to On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina – kids are eating healthier thanks to the five-year-old Kids LiveWell program, which promotes low-calorie, nutritionally balanced meals.
Brian Campbell, R&D director for On the Border restaurants, developed the kids’ lower-calorie “build your own mini taco” concept.
It’s a partnership with the National Restaurant Association through the 25-year-old Healthy Dining, which employs dietitians to choose lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy that will become kid-friendly creations.
On the Border’s director of culinary R&D, Brian Campbell, bubbles over when discussing the brand’s under-400-calorie options such as Build Your Own Mini Tacos.
“What kid wouldn’t love being ‘the chef’ and building their own tacos just exactly the way they want them?” he asks. “It’s like having permission to play with your food.”
Millions of people are ordering boxed dinners and meal services to the tune of $5 billion in sales and growing. The growth and variety of these services is dizzying but basically it boils down to this: recipes, ingredients, and delivery. All you add is cooking and cleanup.
After that it gets interesting. Competitors looking for their piece of the pie offer trimmings such as menus for special diets, recipes created by celebrity chefs, weekly menus designed to cut food waste, biodegradable packaging, etc. All of them promise an easy time in the kitchen and a meal that’s much more homemade than takeout.
Promising families more time together in the kitchen preparing fresh, healthy and tasty recipes they’d never even dream of making, we decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon. The following companies are not the biggest but they reflect the emerging opportunity (and the challenges) of this potentially huge disruption in how we feed ourselves at home.
California-based, Chef’d, a non-subscription meal service distinguishes itself by offering menus that are developed by known and emerging chefs. The company just signed with Weight Watchers (which just signed with Oprah Winfrey) to create what might be the most powerful food alliance in the weight loss sector.
Last year Weight Watchers partnered with Chef’d founder/CEO Kyle Ransford so that busy consumers could order meal ingredients online, including through their mobile devices. The agreement with Weight Watchers lets shoppers order the Weight Watchers meals through either company’s website (service is by invitation and not yet available at press time).
With more than 100 recipes and 60 partners, from famous celebrity chefs, food authors and bloggers, Chef’d features fresh, pre-portioned ingredients for two or four diners that can be ordered and shipped in one to two days. Each order includes a step-by-step recipe card with visuals and nutritional information, as well as suggestions for beer or wine pairing. It also includes tips for children to take part in cooking. Dishes are available at every skill level. New recipes are added every month in categories that range from gourmet to gluten-free. Prices range from $9 to $17 per serving.
“Our company is designed to use up any perishable food by week’s end, leaving zero food waste.”__Payman Nejati, Handpick/Smart Groceries
Handpick/Smart Groceries founded by Payman Nejati, in San Francisco is a creative dinner concept that combines the service of grocery shopping with a variety of 5 themed meal choices: Asian, Meat Lovers, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, or Seafood. Each kit contains 12-15 ingredients along with 3 recipes and cooking instructions packed in a refrigerated box delivered to your door.
“The service,” Nejati says, “which is available through Handpick’s mobile app, aims to bring affordable meals by offering consumers the ability to shop, cook and eat healthy meals while keeping food spending to a minimum.” Targeting a wider audience on a cross-income scale Handpick/Smart Grocery is a more affordable and sustainable way to cook. Recipes are searched and selected by using social media research and market data to identify food trends. Users have access to the company’s searchable food data base with more than 250 million recipes.
The service promises more time outside of the grocery store and fun times inside the kitchen. It’s a money saving way to cook without shopping. Customers can also customize their grocery bundles based on diet and food restrictions.
“Our company is designed to use up any perishable food by week’s end, leaving zero food waste”, Nejati explains. “Moreover, customers can use our mobile app in case they change their minds and want to prepare something else with ingredients left over in their food bundle.”
No subscription necessary, Handpick Smart Groceries are affordable meal kits (starting at about $6.00 per meal) and for every box sold, Handpick will donate a meal to a food bank in the U.S.
Ever wonder what high-fashion models eat or if they even eat at all?
After a lifetime of dieting, Danika Brysha, plus size model decided to try a new diet called WHOLE 30.
Think of it as a short-term, 30 day nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings by avoiding sugar, grains and other foods that compromise your immune system.
Danika set out to challenge herself on the diet while blogging about her experiences and sharing recipes of the food she was making and eating. As a result, Model Meals emerged from her tiny kitchen in Manhattan’s West Village, where she turned to friend and mentor, chef Cathy McKnight to gain professional insight on how to create more recipes from scratch using only natural and identifiable ingredients. She began cooking for friends and then friends of friends.
After a move from New York to California, and a dream to create a business where customers can order “clean, non-processed food” so that all people could experience the same positive shift in the clarity and energy she was experiencing, Model Meals flourished.
Located in Los Angeles and Orange counties, seasonal, weekly items are chosen by the customer from an extensive menu and ordered by midnight on Tuesday for a Sunday delivery.
Clear-topped containers with labeled ingredients and cooking instructions for the partially cooked items, arrive in a stylish carrying case packed with dry ice.
Meals often include exotic ingredients such as sesame, coconut, and avocado oils accompanied by tamarind, curry, ginger, and lemongrass giving customers exciting flavor pairings to accompany fish, chicken, and other proteins. The portions are generous and so is the company; add-on menu items such as bone broth, known for its benefits of burning fat and saturating blood cells with nutrition are now being offered and all proceeds are donated to the Max Love Project, helping families fighting childhood cancers and life-threatening conditions.
Model Meal packages can be ordered for one week or for one month’s worth of food. Prices start at $158.00 per week.
The Purple Carrot
For the “flexitarian,” an individual who eats plant based diets with occasional meat, The Purple Carrot, a boxed dinner service founded by Andrew Levitt, CEO, is a mindful dinner choice.
“We’re not preaching veganism at all,” Levitt says. “I look at it as a great opportunity to make a real difference in the world by teaching people how to eat a plant-based diet that is good for health, good for the environment and good for animal welfare.”
This pay as you go, non-subscription based plan allows its customers to order 2 out of 4 vegan dinner options for the week ahead complete with pre-measured ingredients from recipes created and tested by cookbook author and former New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman.
The food is fresh, non-GMO (genetically modified), often organic and is shipped right to your door. Menu items such as caramelized onion crepes with warm spinach and mushroom salad are easy to prepare and can be accompanied by your own choice of protein for any family member who eats meat.
It’s a great way to become acquainted with the uncommon ingredients and flavors of vegan dishes without having to know how to cook them.
The buying plan is not only flexible but reasonable; $68.00 feeds 2 people three times a week and $74.00 feeds 4 people twice a week.
With only three clicks on your phone, the familiar ring of the age old question “What’s for dinner?” is being answered in a completely different way. The only question left is, when will we be able to order a 5 star, Michelin Award winning Chef delivered in a box – ready to cook dinner?
That day may be nearer than you think.
Executive Chef Richard Papier opened Arana in New Orleans’ Garden District about a year ago. He is holding a bottle of Kai tequila (Day of the Dead), one of their many varieties. (Photo © Kent Hardouin)
Over 1,800 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Many more fled the city prior to the floods, including Richard Papier. Ten years later, he finally came back.
“I didn’t know if my home was OK. I was sitting at a computer watching the governor on TV talking about the city,” recalls Richard Papier of New Orleans. Although his home was in the Garden District, far from the Lower 9th Ward, he didn’t realize it had been spared from the floods.
Papier had had to flee, along with thousands of others, days before Hurricane Katrina slammed into Southeastern Louisiana in late August 2005. He left for North Carolina, but not as quickly as he planned. Traffic was snarled. Power lines were down.
“Trying to get out of town was crazy. We had to drive to Baton Rouge just to get out of town… Both sides of the interstate were being used, yet even so, what usually took 45 minutes to an hour took about five hours. We couldn’t find a gas station, either.”