Our What’s Hot 2020 Culinary Forecast, a survey of 600 chefs from the American Culinary Federation, found that restaurant diners want healthier options for their children. They want foods that align with their own culinary preferences, and restaurateurs are listening.

“One of the biggest challenges for restaurants has been the difficulty and expense of adding ‘healthy’ options that wouldn’t necessarily sell well,” says Maggie Gentile, vice president of nutrition policy for Food Directions LLC. “Operators were nervous about making the leap, but now seem more willing to take chances.”

Customers’ changing palates may explain the shift. Children are exposed to a wider assortment of flavors and ingredients than was typical in the past. Many of those flavors and ingredients, for example Mediterranean and Asian, plant-forward and whole grained, comprise healthier choices.

Chef Ype Von Hengst, co-founder of the 19-unit, Rockville, Md.-based Silver Diner chain, has created an award-winning healthier kids’ menu.

“Don’t be afraid to offer different, healthier menu items,” he says. “Don’t assume kids won’t like them. You never know what they will or won’t love. Our low-sodium teriyaki salmon quinoa bowl sells great. We had no idea they’d like it so much, but the lesson learned is to do it and see what happens.”

Von Hengst offers four tips for selling healthy kids’ meals:

Ype Von Hengst, Silver Diner’s co-founder
  1. Get kids’ input on menu items. “We do kids’ tastings where we let them choose from different options. We listen carefully to their feedback. Their involvement is key.”
  2. Change things up. “Add one or two new items regularly. We do our tastings every two or three years and tweak a couple of things. We’re going to revisit our kids’ menu this year and I’m thinking of adding some plant-based items – maybe meatballs or cauliflower mac and cheese.”
  3. Make the plate colorful and attractive. “There has to be color and texture in addition to the flavor. Kids love color and crunchiness.”
  4. Make them search for less healthful items. “Don’t make the less healthful items as readily visible on the menu. If kids don’t see these items, they’ll order what’s on your menu. We took our home fries and French fries off the menus, along with sugary beverages. It was a gutsy thing to do; the feedback was positive.”

Silver Diner’s best-selling kids’ meal is a salmon-teriyaki quinoa bowl with pineapple and edamame.


At national restaurant brands, kids’ meals are increasingly serving more sophisticated and nutritious choices that include lean proteins, whole grains, and fresh fruits and veggies. Here are three examples:

  1. Chipotle
    Focusing on fiber, protein and veggies, the Kid’s Quesadilla is a soft flour tortilla filled with chicken, steak, pork, or cheese. It comes with a side of white or brown rice and beans, fresh fruit or kid’s-sized tortilla chips.

  1. Wendy’s
    Flavorful and easy to handle, the Kids’ Chicken Wrap – an herb-marinated, grilled chicken breast in a flour tortilla with spring mix, cheddar and honey mustard, is a popular choice. It’s served with apple bites or strawberries and blueberries.

  1. Subway
    Subway replicated mini versions of its full-size sandwiches. These 3-inch subs come in four varieties: Black Forest ham, roast beef, turkey breast, and a veggie version. They’re served on whole-grain wheat bread and loaded with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onion and spinach.

What else can you do to market healthy kids’ meals?

  • Make meals customizable. Kids, like adults, like to choose what they want, so offer a mix-and-match menu of healthy items.
  • Focus on innovation but present the new menu items in ways kids typically love, such as dippable items, finger foods or kid-friendly kebabs packed with protein and veggies.
  • Pair healthy meals with a free toy or offer. Last summer, Subway paired the purchase of a Fresh Fit for Kids Meal with a free ticket to a Disney film.

    Want to learn more about healthy kids meals? Register for the 2020 Nutrition meeting in Ft. Lauderdale this March 3-4. You can also download the What’s Hot Culinary Forecast 2020 to see all the top trends.