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Taking the Kids

Pass the Trout, Please

October 02, 1994|EILEEN OGINTZ

Matt wouldn't even look at the kids' menu. "I know there's nothing on it I want to eat," he said firmly, begging to order trout for the third night in a row.

I didn't like spending $14 for his dinner but I couldn't force him to eat another burger, hot dog or serving of chicken fingers and fries. I figured any 10-year-old who had hiked 10 miles up a mountain deserved a decent meal.

Yet wherever we went on a recent trip West, the kids' offerings were sadly similar and often distressingly high in fat. Some menus offered "heart healthy" choices for adults but stuck to the same tired choices for the kids.

This at a time when 25% to 40% of American children are overweight and research continues to underscore that heart disease and high cholesterol can start in childhood, said Dr. John Udall, a national expert on pediatric nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor at Louisiana State and Tulane Universities. "People have got to start realizing that this is not good for kids," he said.

It's especially troublesome on trips, he continued, when kids are probably getting less exercise than at home and eating more snacks that may be high in fat.

Yet few restaurants seem inclined to change. "This is what the restaurants think the kids want," said Gregg Rapp, whose Seattle-based company, Menu Workshop, designs menus for restaurants around the country.

Indeed, restaurant officials point to industry surveys that show kids prefer high-fat choices such as pizza and macaroni and cheese. "A restaurant meal is not the time to force nutrition on the kids," said Susan Schneider, who oversees children's menus for the national restaurant chain Denny's. "Parents' No. 1 concern is to keep the kids happy and quiet. In 3 1/2 years, I haven't received one letter asking for other food for kids," Schneider said.

At the same time, restaurants from budget-priced Denny's to upscale city eateries are working overtime to make families feel welcome, Rapp said.

Little wonder. The market is growing each year as children of the baby-boom generation reach school age and adolescence. During the 1990s, the Census Bureau reports, the elementary school-age population is expected to jump more than 4 million, numbering more than 36 million by the year 2000.

"Already 40% of parents with preteen kids tell us they never go to table-serve restaurants without their kids," American Restaurant Assn. spokeswoman Wendy Webster said.

All the more reason to demand more nutritious food for children, Udall said. One way is to fill out customer satisfaction cards, he said. "Someone has to be advocates for the children."

A few upscale places have begun to listen. At Hyatt hotels and resorts, for example, a child can order a smaller portion of anything he likes from the adult menu for half price. The Boca Raton Resort in Florida has adopted a similar policy.

"We asked the kids and they told us they wanted more choices," said Meg McLeroy, who initiated the menu policy at the Boca Raton resort. Contrary to popular wisdom, she's convinced that "kids have a lot more sophisticated tastes today."

Even if they don't, they likely won't want to eat chicken fingers and hot dogs for a week straight. Until more restaurants get the message from parents that there is a need for more nutritious choices for children, there are some ways we can ensure that everyone eats healthier on the road.

In restaurants, rather than ordering a meal for each child, try ordering "family-style" and letting everyone share. Side dishes may also be the source of healthy options. And ethnic restaurants may offer variety.

The bad news is that it may cost more to eat healthy on the road. The other bad news is that the kids may resist. "It can be tough," Somers said. "You might have to work out a compromise."

But not always. Matt finished his trout every time.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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