The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) annual “What’s Hot” survey of 1,800 professional chefs from the American Culinary Federation determined that healthful meals for young people would be the No. 3 trend for the industry this year.
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are coming up with various kids’ meals that are lower in calories, salt, and fat and higher in important nutrition density (think more fiber, vitamins and minerals).
The quick serve industry believes that making fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, and fruit juice part of a kids’ meal helps parents, not just by having the items available, but also by offering them as the default option, meaning healthy food is built into the meal. It’s sort of a stealth-health approach.
“For years, you had to ask to get a salad or fruit instead of French fries, and that puts the onus on me to choose them,” says Pamela Smith, an Orlando, Florida, nutritionist, author, consultant, and energy coach. “But if I can bundle the healthier choices, that’s best.”
It also prevents food fights between parents who want a healthier option and kids who want fun foods that may be high in sodium and sugar.
Anita Shaffer, director of menu management for Chartwells School Dining Services in Rye Brook, New York, confirms that healthy choices as the default is best.
“Why not make healthy options the default, and the less nutritious items the ones that have to be chosen?” she says. “You may be surprised that kids love the healthy ones.”
The NPD Group, a consulting and market research firm, projected that fruit, mini burgers; grilled and baked chicken, and non-carbonated drinks would grow in popularity this year and beyond.
The number of visits at quick serves by families with kids was flat in 2011 for the second consecutive year after several years of declines, but only 8 percent of quick-service restaurant visits of groups with children include a kids’ meal or order from a kids’ menu.
“The price for the kids’ meals have been going up, and that is part of it,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst. “There’s been a lot of switching from the kids’ meals to the value menu, and splitting some of those items among the kids.”
While the kids’ meals with toys appeal to children aged 4 and younger, kids older than that “want choices,” Riggs notes.
“The real challenge is to develop dishes that aren’t labeled healthy, but are nutritious and delicious,” she says. “We want to give kids the nutrients they need to grow and play and think and have fun, but with an eye on controlling calories.”
Changes in children’s tastes, especially to more healthful options, are showing up in school menus, which often reflect the popular quick-serve options, Shaffer says.
“We get inspiration from quick-service restaurants because children are exposed to them and those preferences,” she says. “We take popular foods and enhance the nutritional value.”
The idea is to give kids what they know and like, but making a few tweaks here and there to make it healthier.
For instance, Chartwells has a proprietary pizza crust made with whole-wheat flour, flax, and olive oil. “We top it with low-fat cheese, and then there are plenty of toppings, including all kinds of vegetables, the kinds of foods kids should eat more of,” Shaffer says.
Shaffer has also seen students gravitate toward other healthier items, including baked (not fried) chicken, flavorful and spicy sauces, and sub sandwiches made with lower-fat meats and cheeses, numerous vegetables, and whole-grain breads.
Chartwells is a food service management company and after looking into their organization it appears their intentions are noble given the constraints placed upon them by state and federal school lunch regulations. 
Updated nutritional standards are being phased in over the next three years, starting with the 2012-13 school year. The new requirements raise standards for the first time in 16 years, to improve the health and nutrition of the nearly 32 million students that participate in school meal programs.
The new meal standards will:
Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables daily.
Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods and low-fat white milk or fat-free flavored milk.
Limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size.
Focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
The federal school lunch guidelines are far from perfect but at least they have taken steps in the right direction. But just because the meals are better than they were doesn’t mean they are always the best option for our children. That said, considering the nutritional intake of many children in our current culture that school lunch potentially could be their most balanced and nutritious meal of the day. And for students and families receiving free or reduced lunch it can be a real blessing.
I still believe snacks and lunches prepared at home are the best option to ensure adequate nutrition while also promoting optimal performance in the classroom and on the field of play. Free will is a beautiful thing and we will never be able to regulate people into “preferred” behaviors. Setting an example for children with our own actions is the best tool of influence that we have. Informed demand from consumers is also a powerful tool to bring about change as well and the “scrambling” of the quick service food industry to make up for lagging market share (i.e. provide healthier options for children) is proof of this.
Krista Gable, whose two children attend the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, favors improving school lunch standards. But she also thinks her children fare better because she packs their lunches four out of five days.
"I know exactly what my kids are eating," she said, "and comparing what I'm giving them to what they may get in school, I know mine is better." 
I always find it interesting what popular media and the “food industry” refer to as healthy food options. Low-fat milk, fat-free flavored milk, and fruit juice are better options than soda but I wouldn’t exactly call them healthy options. This is why a mindset like that of Mrs. Gable is so important for optimizing the nutrition of our children. Inherently the food industry has an agenda driven first and foremost by profit and loss statements and while I sincerely believe that guidelines to improve school lunches have the best interest of students in mind the system is scaled for mass and as a result change for the better can be slow, remember it took 16 years for the most recent guidelines to be updated! The only agenda you have is raising your kids to be the best they can be and I believe we all inherently understand that the food we give them has a profound impact on their health as well as their physical and mental development.
Everyday we vote through our actions. We either vote in favor of the quick serve and processed food industry or we empower ourselves to take control of the health of our families by opting for fresh farm to table nutrition as often as possible. Again I want to emphasize that the school lunch program while far from perfect can be a blessing for children and families that are struggling to put food on their table. For many other families school lunch is an option; it’s better than fast food but not as good as nutritious lunches prepared and packed at home.
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist