Taking the Culinary High Road

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

The next time you go to a restaurant with your kids, you might do a double take after looking at the kids' menu. That's because nowadays you are just as likely to find entrée choices like oven-baked French fries and fried shrimp with cocktail sauce sharing the page with burgers, hot dogs and mac-n-cheese. The restaurant industry's youngest patrons, it turns out, are developing more sophisticated palates.

As a result, restaurants like 101 Beer Kitchen in Dublin are responding with kids' menus that cater to more daring taste buds. Co-owner Jessica Kittrell enlists children, often her own, to work directly with kitchen staff to come up with a seasonal menu that has just the right combination of both daring and familiar foods.

"Kids are becoming open to eating other foods. They are eating more fresh and less packaged foods," said Kittrell.

She added that items like chicken taco rolls, Parmesan-crusted chicken and PB&J pizza are some of the top sellers on her kids' menu. Kittrell said new twists on old standards - like the pretzel-wrapped hot dog - also are winners with all ages.

101 Beer Kitchen is not alone when it comes to giving the kids' menu a creative overhaul.

According to the 2015 What's Hot Culinary Forecast by the National Restaurant Association, kids' menus across the country are changing to accommodate more sophisticated taste buds.

According to the study, some of the changes include: kids' entrée salads; whole grain bread; gourmet items; more "ethnic" dishes; oven-baked items; 100 percent juice options; on-a-stick/skewer items; salmon; mini burgers and foods turned into fun shapes.

While this is welcome news for the restaurant industry, parents may be scratching their heads and wondering why their kids are saying, "Please, may I?' to foods they may have never seen before.

Kittrell believes one reason is that families are becoming more aware of the harmful effects of processed food.

"They're coming in seeing 'Ants on a Log' on the menu and they're excited because it's likely something they're seeing in their lunchbox," said Kittrell of the celery, peanut butter and raisin classic. "They are seeing clean eating at home, so they expect it when they come out in public."

Annika Stensson, a manager of research communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, agreed that kids are taking culinary cues from their parents.

"Children are more food-experienced than ever before because they see parents satisfying their own more adventurous palates," said Stensson.

Here in Ohio, restaurants are getting creative when it comes to striking the balance between healthier options and creating menu items that kids enjoy.

"Most restaurant owners in Ohio are seeing a shift in demand for healthier choices for kids," said Natalie Walston, director of communications for the Ohio Restaurant Association. "Many gluten-free items are being added to kids' meals, as well as grilled options, brown rice and whole fruits. Parents are raising a healthier generation of foodies with more sophisticated palates."

Walston pointed to examples of items like grilled meats and egg substitutes that are being added to the kids' menus at popular Ohio restaurant chains like the Rusty Bucket and Bob Evans.

Shelley Mann is the executive director of Dine Originals Columbus, an organization that represents independently owned restaurants in central Ohio. Mann said restaurants and families also are responding to locally sourced food options. The Worthington Inn serves the Buckeye Burger made with grass-fed Ohio beef on bread from a local baker, Columbus Brewing Company serves grilled salmon with brown rice and locally grown green beans, and Mozart's in Clintonville just revamped its "Young Mozarts" menu to include more fresh, organic options like roast pork loin and fruit salad parfait.

"I would say most of the changes are more about healthier options," said Mann, "rather than catering to adventurous eaters, but that's probably because adventurous eaters will often just order from the adult menu anyway."

If you are the parent of a picky eater, however, and know that all the menu innovations in the world won't tempt your child's palate, rest assured that traditional options like chicken nuggets, pizza and hot dogs aren't going away. They just might be made from better, healthier ingredients.