Diane Schmidt, local parent and health educator, came up with the idea after her decade long experience dining out with her school age daughter. She approached Alderman Michele Smith of the 43rd Ward and Chef Sarah Stegner, the James Beard Foundation awarding winning chef and the co-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Illinois. The team brought in Carol Wagner, holistic nutrition specialist, to help in developing nutritional guidelines for the chefs. Since its launch, more than 35 restaurants have pledged to create healthier menu options for kids.
Schmidt described why she got the idea for Healthy Fare for Kids. "I got sick of the same kids' menu in so many restaurants and wondered why the worst food in the restaurants always ended up on the kids' menu," she said. "We know the drill-mac and cheese, chicken fingers, hamburgers, hot dogs and piles of French fries, paired with pop and dessert. It is a nightmare for families trying to feed their kids well."
Today, families spend more than 50 percent of their food dollars eating out. In addition, kids eat 50 percent more calories at restaurants than they do at home. Numerous studies link eating out with obesity and other related conditions. Obesity rates have increased dramatically among all age groups since 1970, more than quadrupling among children ages 6 to 11. Today more than 23 million children and teens in the United States-nearly one in three young people-are overweight or obese.
"The increase in childhood obesity is one of the reasons we've launched the program," said Schmidt. "Since many families visit restaurants often, it is important that restaurants across Chicagoland offer something for kids that tastes really good but is also fresh and healthy. We hope that many, many restaurants will join this program-every restaurant can and should make a difference."
"We're confident that the restaurant community as a whole will embrace this program and make children's health a priority," said Stegner. "It's simply the right thing to do and the time to do it is now."
Stegner, who was one of the founding members of the popular Green City Market, has personally invited some of Chicago's top chefs to participate in the Healthy Fare for Kids program: Alexander Brunacci, Tim Cottini, Christian Eckman, Brian Huston, Beverly Kim, Matt Moroni, Sean Sanders, Bruce Sherman, Jared Van Camp, Paul Virant and Susan Weaver, among others. She has piloted similar fare in her own restaurant and has been surprised at the great response from kids and their families. "If you put delicious, healthy food in front of kids and give them a chance, they will eat it!" she said.
The Healthy Fare for Kids leaders have been thrilled at the response the program has received thus far. "I've been so impressed with the chefs I've met and their generosity and commitment to help," said Schmidt. "Almost all the restaurants I've approached have been enthusiastic about the idea and have asked what they can do. At Ditka's restaurant, Executive Chef Tom Kenney sat down with me, and within two weeks had new menus."
Alderman Smith is also very pleased with the successful launch of the program in the 43rd ward. "When Sarah and Diane approached me about Healthy Fare for Kids, I was more than happy to help spread the word and encourage the restaurants in our ward to get involved," she said. "It's even more gratifying to know that we spearheaded the effort and that the program will now expand to the rest of Chicago."
The leaders understand that it takes a lot of time and resources to change a menu and so they are extremely appreciative of the efforts these restaurants have made.
Nookies, for example, has overhauled its children's menu, serving antibiotic free turkey and multi-grain pancakes with fruit. "As a popular family restaurant with four locations, Nookies is a wonderful example of how restaurants can participate in Healthy Fare for Kids," said Schmidt.
Other restaurants have joined in. Café Ba Ba Reeba has a new festive kids' menu, Goose Island was the first restaurant to put out a special kids menu and offer complimentary veggies and humus to each family table along with several Healthy Fare for Kids specials. Four Farthings, which serves many neighborhood kids, also revamped its entire kids' menu. Basil Leaf Café created a new kids menu and Zapitistas Mexican Grill is working on a new kids menu for their three restaurants.
Restaurants need to commit to offering one healthy choice, following these guidelines, in order to become official participants in the program. The guidelines emphasize whole grains, seasonal foods, cooking methods that are low in fat and appropriate portion sizes:
1. Limit the bread at the table before the meal
Bread, muffins, crackers or other starchy items can quickly elevate blood sugar, increasing cravings and causing kids to overeat. Limit the amount of bread or substitute it for fresh vegetables and let kids' hunger be satisfied with the main part of the meal.
2. Ensure some lean protein with the meal
Eating protein is an essential part of the diet and ensures that kids won't feast on only starchy food. Consider a lean cut of meat or an entrée showcasing legumes: both are rich sources of protein. We highly encourage the use of lean proteins that are free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
3. Portion sizes: Keep it simple
Children consume almost twice as many calories when eating food made outside the home. Children's stomachs are about the size of their fist, so smaller portions of good food will fill them up and leave them satisfied.
4. Use whole grain breads and pasta
Choose whole grains for part of your ingredients instead of highly refined products. Whole grains are packed with nutrients and fiber.
5. Use cooking methods that are lower in fat while still retaining flavors
Steer away from serving fried food that is high in fat, saturated fat and calories. As well, avoid all food using trans-fat or hydrogenated fats.
6. Prepare your dishes with great flavors while limiting salt
High sodium diets can cause a number of health challenges-even in children. Build your dish with flavor profiles that introduce children to the naturally delicious taste of healthy foods.
7. Keep it local and seasonal
Local produce is fresher, tastier and a great way to get kids engaged in learning about local and seasonal food. It's great for the environment and kids love to be a part of being green.
8. Serve no-sugar beverages and small, if any, desserts
Have kids order flat or sparkling water flavored with vegetables or fruit, even with 100% juice. Or serve non-flavored milk with dinner. Soda and concentrated fruit juice are unwelcomed guests at the dinner table. Finally, end this healthy dining experience by retooling desserts. If you want to add dessert to the meal, continue the idea of small and seasonal.
Healthy Fare for Kids also emphasizes that these guidelines are good advice for at-home cooks as well. "These guidelines can be very helpful to parents in planning and serving their meals at home," said Schmidt. "Healthy eating really starts at home. I would love for parents to use these guidelines for planning their own meals. They're straightforward and easy to use."
Visit www.healthyfareforkids.com for a complete and growing list of participating restaurants.
For more information on Healthy Fare for Kids, please contact Diane Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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