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Behind the Line: Kid tactics

Operators devise menu plans with children in mind

Restaurants are steering kids to healthier, more mature seafood dishes. - Photo courtesy of CJ’s on the Bay
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2013

You have to look hard to find great seafood options on the kids’ menu, where old favorites like fried fish and chips, and the variations thereof (fish fingers, fish sticks) are often the only options. But a handful of innovators have introduced more sophisticated children’s seafood offerings to their menus, and the items are proving popular, both with kids and parents, who are looking for dishes that are healthful and taste good.

At Joe’s Crab Shack, a U.S. casual-dining seafood chain with 130 locations, the kids’ menu features a steampot, snow crab and grilled popcorn shrimp. Each one is served with healthful sides including celery, applesauce, corn on the cob and rice or vegetables. The company updated its kids’ menu in 2010 and 2011, when it worked closely with registered dieticians provided by San Diego-based Healthy Dining Finder, restaurant consultants that focus on creating healthier items for both the adults’ and kids’ menus. 

One of Healthy Dining Finders’ programs is Kids LiveWell, launched in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association (NRA) to encourage restaurateurs to feature one or more kids’ menu items that meet the association’s nutrition criteria. Joe’s Crab Shack was among the first restaurants to get on board, repackaging the way it presented food choices on the kids’ menu so that it highlighted lean protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and low-fat dairy. 

“We were thankful for their leadership on the issue of smart food choices for kids and embraced the opportunity to be an inaugural partner in the Kids LiveWell program,” says Janet Gieselman, VP of marketing at Joe’s Crab Shack. “Parents love that we provide options outside of what is traditionally expected. Joe’s menu gives their kids a chance to try healthy, new items such as crab and shrimp, often for the first time, while still offering known favorites such as Cheesy Mac and Chicken Dippers. And kids are excited to order an item that’s similar or the same as what they see their parents order — only kid-sized.”

Cracking crabs in the steampot gives kids an excuse to play with their food, she says. “We find what works is a menu that strikes a balance between what kids know they like, but also offers healthy and slightly daring choices.”

Great New Hampshire Restaurants, which owns and operates T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s casual dining chains with various locations across New Hampshire, was another group that introduced seafood to the kids’ menu as a result of Kids LiveWell. Both restaurants feature a grilled salmon dish served with broccoli, half a baked potato and 4 ounces of 1 percent milk. At fewer than 500 calories per serving, it has appeared on the menus for $7.99 for the past two years. 

“It’s the only seafood dish on the kids’ menu and we find that kids aged 7 through 10 order it quite a bit,” says Nicole Barreira, executive corporate chef. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on this dish. Parents email us saying it’s so great that we offer fish on the menu, and in the form of a healthy, balanced meal. And we feel that salmon was a great way to introduce seafood to the kids’ menu. As its success grows, we’ll look into offering more seafood items to kids.”

At CJ’s on the Bay in Marco Island, Fla., the kids’ fish dinner consists of grilled fresh tilapia served with sweet potato puffs and steamed broccoli. “To keep the dish kid-friendly, the fish is simply prepared over the grill and because of the tilapia’s mild flavor, it’s a great option for even the pickiest eaters,” says Laura Owen, executive chef. 

The meal debuted four summers ago. As the first fish item on the kids’ menu, Owen didn’t know how well it would sell. 

“It turns out our $8.99 fish sells better than chicken on the kids’ menu,” she says. “We’re a family-friendly restaurant, and I noticed parents were looking for something other than plates full of french fries and heavy pasta and pizza. They wanted something lighter that offered their kids a more balanced meal.”

During high season CJ’s churns out 25 kids’ fish dinners each week. “I keep my eyes on the plates when they come back from the dining room, and for the most part the kids are finishing it off — we don’t throw much of it away. Next on my agenda is to add shrimp.”

Kids are growing up with seafood now more than ever before, says Anita Jones-Mueller, CEO of Healthy Dining Finder. She suggests restaurateurs offer more seafood choices using sauces that kids like, such as teriyaki, honey mustard, soy sauce, lemon garlic and herbs. “Restaurants are the perfect setting to get kids excited about trying new foods, especially seafood,” she says.

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia

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