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Southern restaurant brand Tupelo Honey’s kids menu offers lil’ Supper Plates like Slow Roasted BBQ Pulled Pork served with a side.

How to Step Up Your Kids Menu Game

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Discerning parents want more for their kids’ dining options—here’s how to meet their demands.
By Leigh Kunkel March 2019 Flavor

Perfectly cooked ribeye steak, chicken-thigh bravitos with a piquillo pepper sauce, and alcohol-free Nojitos made with fresh-squeezed juice are just a few tasty treats found on kids menus these days. “As a parent myself, I know there’s nothing better than finding a spot where both the adults and kids have favorites on the menu,” says Jonathan Rohland, culinary director of taqueria chain bartaco with 17 locations nationwide. “In creating our kids menu, we actually gathered a tasting panel of kids—not adults. Kids are the toughest critics!”

Indeed, many restaurants have found success by not relying only on the old standbys of mac ’n’ cheese and noodles with butter, instead trusting children to be excited to explore new cuisines and dishes.

For kids open to international cuisine, many restaurants are finding that Japanese food hits the spot. At JINYA Ramen Bar, a 33-location ramen chain in the U.S. and Canada, children get a taste of traditional Japanese cuisine served in a more familiar format with the brand’s Karaage-style fried chicken and french fries made with Japanese sweet potatoes in its kids meal.

Even restaurants that aren’t Japanese-focused are getting in on the action. Bloomin Brands’ Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar has shrimp tempura on the kids menu, and Honey Salt in Las Vegas offers marinated chicken skewers and dessert sushi made with rice crispy treats and gummies.

Steakhouses like Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Chicago aim to introduce sophistication to the kids menu by offering items like its signature prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. “The meal is more than just an act in eating, but more a way for the child to learn how to dine, with table manners and while engaging in conversation,” says Shannon Tauschman, sales and marketing manager.

Likewise, national chain Ocean Prime and the Chicago location of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar both have a miniature version of filet mignon on their menus for children, while Andiron Steak & Sea in Las Vegas offers a kid-friendly New York strip steak. “It thrills us when we see a child order what we do best,” Tauschman of Lawry’s says. “Then they’re hooked.”

Restaurants have been incorporating increasingly exciting Mexican-inspired dishes into their menus aimed at the younger crowd, too. At Jalisco Norte Mex Kitchen + Bar in Dallas, chef José Meza is leaning into tradition by adding Sopa de Abuela, his grandmother’s own soup recipe, to the kids offerings.

Two-location Chicago restaurant Big Star’s chef de cuisine, Julie Warpinski, uses traditional ingredients to make dishes on the Little Star menu. The brand’s kiddie Cubano, served on a mini telera roll, is one of the most popular items on the menu.

Restructuring the kids menu, bartaco offers options that are easy to grab and share like with its Large Tray for three kids that features quesadillas, guacamole, chips, tacos, corn wheels, cucumbers, and fruit skewers. The brand has also seen huge success with fresh juice drinks. “Our kids refrescos like the Limeade (lime juice and agave), Nojito (mint, lime juice, and club soda), and Clarico (nectar, sprite, and chopped fruit), are a go-to choice on the kids menu,” Rohland of bartaco says. “Tasty, fun mocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice make both parents and kids happy!”

Lots of restaurants are finding ways to have fun with presentation, as well. At The Mockingbird in Nashville, Tennessee, executive chef and partner Brian Riggenbach’s globally inspired comfort food dishes, with names like Pasta La Vista, are served on a classic lunch tray, complete with a coloring sheet.

The Ginger Monkey in Chandler, Arizona, is also plating up something special: the restaurant’s TV tray breakfasts and dinners have received great feedback from kids and grown-ups alike.

King’s Fish House and Meat on Ocean, both part of King’s Seafood Company, which operates a total of 21 U.S. restaurants, put extra effort into the brand’s kids menu designs. At King’s Fish House, the menu doubles as an activity book with mazes and puzzles, while Meat on Ocean’s whimsical kids menu is illustrated like a fairy tale.

With adults aiming to eat more whole, healthy foods, it’s no surprise that they want to pass those habits on to their children. “I wanted to make sure that parents and kids who had a goal of elevating their eating habits from the norm had that opportunity,” says Eric Gabrynowicz, corporate chef for 14-unit Southern restaurant Tupelo Honey. He incorporated that philosophy into the kids menu with items like the house-made black bean burger on a whole wheat bun and a farm-fresh vegetable plate.

At Spanish chain Telefèric Barcelona, with a location in Walnut Creek, California, parents can teach kids about sharing and portion control with the brand’s tiny tapas offering dishes like chicken empanadas and ham croquetas.

“I think the trend will continue to go towards more ‘adult’ options for kids,” Gabrynowicz says. “More refined proteins, done simply, with less spice and fuss. People really do appreciate that we are trying to give some healthier and more ‘grown-up’ options.”

Trends

  • All Things Japan: For kids open to international cuisine, many restaurants like JINYA Ramen Bar are finding success with Japanese offerings like Karaage-style fried chicken and french fries made with Japanese sweet potatoes.
  • Dishes Deliciosos: Increasingly exciting Mexican-inspired items for a younger crowd are being explored such as sopa de abuela, kiddie cubanos on a mini telera roll, and nojitos.
  • More than Mac ‘n’ Cheese: The whole, healthy foods that are trending for adults are trending for kids menus, too, like with Tupelo Honey’s house-made black bean burger served on a whole wheat bun and farm-fresh vegetable plate.