According to Gary Patterson, executive chef/culinary for McCormick & Company, developing tasty, healthful kids’ meals takes as much work and creativity as preparing fine-dining dishes. “They've got to be appealing and have flavor,” he says.
Patterson recently oversaw the food preparation for the National Restaurant Association’s second annual Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge, of which McCormick is a founding partner. He said he was impressed with not only the sophistication of this year’s recipes, but also the more mature palates of the young children judging the contest. He talked about the importance of the competition and the future of kids’ meals at restaurants.
Why is it important for restaurateurs to offer more healthful meals for kids? Consumer demand for more healthful meals is a trend that’s maturing. We've all known for some time that we've needed to eat healthfully, and right now more people than ever before are aware of what they’re putting into their bodies and the way they eat.
What should restaurateurs understand about child nutrition and creating healthful kids’ meals? It’s more than just creating a recipe that looks nutritiously sound. The food has to be appealing. The children or young adults need to feel that the food has flavor, that it’s not just something that’s ‘good for them.’
How do you do that? You have to work as hard as any chef working on an international recipe. When you focus on children, you have to understand what it is that kids enjoy eating. Sometimes it’s about stealth health. For example, think about using spaghetti squash in a dish that may normally have pasta in it. Maybe you can add it in with the pasta and keep your traditional sauce. It’s really a little bit of everything; there’s no straight line to the target.
Do you think chefs and restaurants are succeeding? Absolutely. Ten or 15 years ago, if you had healthier items on the menu, it was a real challenge to keep them in the menu mix. Parents were so drilled into giving their kids what they wanted: fried chicken nuggets and French fries or a burger. And all of those are fine in moderation, but at the end of the day, you have to get parents eating healthfully and help them teach their children, too. It’s great that when they go out to eat now, there are all of these menu selections to point to, instead of having them go the easy route and get the meal that comes with some toy.
Do you think kids are more sophisticated now about what they want to eat? How do you appeal to that, and what makes a successful kids’ meal? That’s a double-edged question, because when you talk about children’s appetites and how what they will eat is changing, it really depends on the sophistication of the parents. I’m not a psychologist, but if parents are willing to try and eat new things and are always open, the children are going to do the same thing. I think it’s about every restaurant at every level having opportunities to present healthful options for children. That way, it’s not just the high end, fine-dining restaurants; it’s quickservice, counter service — those kinds of restaurants, too. All of them need to reach and strive for the same thing.
Is the Kids LiveWell Recipe Challenge a good idea? Is it making strides? I think it is. I don’t know the exact number of entries we had last year, but I understand we had more this year. And these are top-of-the-line, large restaurant companies joining in — especially on the contract foodservice side. Those companies are really focused on this wholeheartedly and have really embraced it. They know that healthful eating is just going to become a part of the maturing of children’s and young adults’ appetites.
At the end of the day, what should chefs and restaurateurs seek to achieve? If we’re talking in general about offering healthier options, we should be thinking about moderation, understanding that flavor doesn't just come from fat and cream and salt. There are a lot of places it does come from: cooking techniques, caramelization, slow cooking and roasting. It also comes from cooking with herbs and spices. Looking in different places for all of those flavors, whether it’s from an acid or vinegar or lemon or lime juice, or just using herbs and spices, whether they’re fresh or dry, they’re all going to work in some way in a soup or salad or pasta dish.