Patrick Hynes, Darden Restaurants
Patrick Hynes, Darden Restaurants

I’m not at all surprised the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast finds healthful kids’ meals, and fruit and vegetable sides in kids’ meals, among this year’s top menu trends.

Darden Restaurants’ guests have been telling us they value the same in order to make dining decisions that are right for them and their family.

When I first started in foodservice many years ago, I recall fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy menu options for kids were limited.

The focus we see today on making healthy choices wasn’t the same back then.

Nowadays, the greater emphasis on choosing healthy options and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is driven by a much greater awareness of the importance of eating right — both by federal dietary guidance and consumer knowledge.

As the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, serving more than 400 million meals annually, we believe we have a leadership obligation to provide our guests with even greater choice and variety that enables them to meet their individual health and wellness needs.

Last year, Darden announced we were establishing specific nutrition standards to guide the development of our healthy kids’ menu options and to help make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Fresh flavor focus

Today, each of Darden’s restaurants offering a kids’ menu features at least one option meeting the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans standards for calories, sodium and fat.

Plus, fruits and vegetables are the default side item for every kids’ meal, and 1% milk is the default beverage.

What may get lost in the nutritional details is what has never changed in foodservice — the importance of flavor.

You know and I know that eating more produce doesn’t mean less flavorful meals.

However, we also know kids’ picky palates can easily push fruits and veggies off the plate (and under the napkin).

Development of Darden’s kids’ menus revolves around meals that taste great and that kids would enjoy.

How do we take healthy fruits and vegetables and prepare them as foods and flavors kids want to gobble up?

Kids’ menus serve as the ultimate flavor test for fruits and vegetables.

Regardless, challenge breeds innovation.

That’s why Darden looks for innovative supply partners that can help us bring irresistible new fruit and vegetable flavors to the tables of our young guests and their parents.

That’s also why collaboration across the supply chain is so important.

First, we cannot create solutions without understanding the challenges from all perspectives.

Second, we are stronger together than when we are alone.

There are tremendous gains to be made for all of us when we unite to discuss opportunities, trends and barriers to increasing fresh produce consumption in foodservice.

Innovative flavor ideas appealing to kids must be among the discussions.

When it comes to foodservice and produce, opportunities to come together as a supply chain are more limited than fruits and vegetables are on kids’ menus.

One place it does happen is at the Produce Marketing Assocation’s annual foodservice conference in July.

I’m glad to know PMA and NRA continue to collaborate on increasing produce consumption in foodservice.

If you’ll also be attending the foodservice conference, here’s my advice: Make sure you can talk to foodservice operators about how your product is a fit for kids’ tastes and menus.

It’s not just full-service operators like Darden. It’s all operators. In fact, for the third consecutive year, healthful kids’ meals ranked No. 1 in hot trends on limited-service menus.

Guess what ranked No. 2? Fruit and vegetable sides in kids’ meals.

I think the word “trend” in this area might be reaching its shelf life.

Healthy meals and fruits and vegetables for kids on restaurant menus are here to stay.

Patrick Hynes is senior director of purchasing for Darden Restaurants, Orlando, Fla., and member of the PMA board of directors.

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