KANSAS CITY — As sure as the ball drops in Times Square to usher in each new year, prognosticators attempt to divine what will be among the drivers of food and beverage sales during the year ahead. Healthier menu items for children are viewed as a key driver by many.

Nearly one-third of restaurant visits during 2013 included children, according to The NPD Group, and, mining a similar vein, a 2013 Mintel International study found that 26% of the time it’s the children who are choosing the venue.

But food service operators walk a fine line in revamping their children’s menu when they add reduced fat, reduced sodium or whole grain items. However, the more of the nutritious items made available, the more often it will be chosen, said Kara Cressey, manager of food and beverage health and wellness strategy for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Photo courtesy of ConAgra Mills

“Our current focus is to further expand offerings of fruits and vegetables at our convenient grab n’ go locations in our parks and resorts,” she said.

More than 50% of the children’s complete meals offered at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort meet the Disney Nutrition Guidelines, which establish limits for calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium in a variety of product formats.

Ms. Cressey said she’s discovered that restaurants that have a wider variety of offerings for children tend to have a higher healthy children’s entree take-rate than locations that only offer a limited selection.

“It’s an interesting learning and something we are continuing to explore,” she said. “We’ve challenged our Disney chefs to create more offerings for our younger guests that will be as popular as the ‘classic’ burger, just healthier.”

Making way for mushrooms

A proving ground for many healthy menu items for children is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Nutrition Program. In 2012, the agency unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals that called for sharp reductions in sodium content in meals, minimum and maximum calorie levels, larger portions of fruits and vegetables, and more whole grains.

In line with adapting to the changes, chefs with the JTM Food Group, Harrison, Ohio, have introduced a beef patty with mushrooms to the school food service market. As a manufacturer of products for the K-12 school food service market, the company fully comprehends the needs of the marketplace as well as the parameters of the U.S.D.A. regulations for the school lunch program.

“JTM partnered with the Mushroom Council to create a burger that’s 30% mushroom and 70% beef; that brings the price down, plus it’s a moister product,” said Brian Hofmeier, vice-president of education and sales for JTM. “We’ve taken out 30% of the beef, put in 29% mushrooms, added seasonings and grilled it up. It is lower in fat and sodium because we’ve removed 30% of the beef. We worked closely with the Cincinnati Public Schools in developing the product and debuted it in July” at the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting in Kansas City.

Photo courtesy of JTM Food Group

During the next year-and-a-half, Mr. Hofmeier expects quick-service restaurants will look at the beef patty with mushrooms not only for their children’s menu, but also for their regular menu.

“As beef prices rise, this is a great way to offer great taste and great cost,” he said. “With 200 burgers in a box, it took out 10 lbs of beef and put in 10 lbs of mushrooms for a cost savings of about $10 per case. Divide $10 by 200 — so I’ve saved the restaurant 5c a burger.”

The Cincinnati Public Schools, with an enrollment of approximately 14,000 students, serves an estimated 8,400 burgers per week. The mushroom burgers are now featured once per week and, thanks to the mushroom-for-beef substitution, the resulting caloric reduction means turkey bacon plus cheese may be added for a crispy bacon cheeseburger item that is still within the U.S.D.A.’s guidelines.

The JTM Food Group now has meatballs, taco meat and spaghetti meat sauce all in development using the mushroom-for-meat substitution to create lower fat, lower sodium products.

Adding whole grain goodness

The U.S.D.A.’s School Nutrition Program guidelines require school food service operators to serve foods containing at least 51% whole grains starting in 2014. The mandate has led to a push to develop ingredients that may be used to develop more whole grain rich products. Don Trouba, director of marketing for ConAgra Mills, Omaha, views the guidelines as a potential sea change.

“With these changes, we are now raising a generation of children who are growing up eating whole grains that look and taste like their traditional favorites,” he said.

ConAgra manufactures and markets Ultragrain, a whole wheat flour that allows operators to serve such children’s menu items as chicken fingers, quesadillas, and cheese pizza.

Across the country, schools without on-site baking facilities may use third-party manufacturers such as Dominos, for example, and its Smart Slice pizza featuring a crust made with Ultragrain.

“As Smart Slice continues to show success, it demonstrates that operators can incorporate whole grain foods into their restaurants without having to change their operations significantly,” Mr. Trouba said.

This year, Shirley Brown, a school nutrition specialist, marks her 40th year with Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, N.Y. As Rich’s director of product training, Ms. Brown does recipe development and she’s found that with portion size alone, not even considering ingredients, comes additional costs.

“We do work very closely with the U.S.D.A. in developing products (for schools) and part of my job is to interpret the regs for our R.&D. people, for our marketing people, as well as for our sales people to understand how these products will fit into (the clients’) menus,” Ms. Brown said.

The Ultimate Breakfast Round (U.B.R.) has become a successful introduction for Rich during the past four years. The product is a 2.5-oz, 100% whole grain soft granola bar that is round.

Photo courtesy of Rich Products Corp.

“We had to go to the U.S.D.A. to get their approval because it looks like a cookie; we had to explain why it was round,” Ms. Brown said. “We test marketed the product over the course of three years — we tested squares and triangles as well, but round always won in popularity.”

Not surprisingly, the U.S.D.A. was mollified to learn that the granola bar recipe was developed following its guidelines. Now, all nutrition information appears on the label of the pre-baked, wrapped product.

“It’s been so successful in places where baking is not an option, that it’s easily moved to the commercial side — coffee shops love them,” Ms. Brown said.

In schools, the U.B.R., when combined with milk or juice and fruit, qualifies as a complete reimbursable meal.

Rich’s has more than 35 whole grain products ready to meet the July 1, 2014, mandate that all products served in the school breakfast program must be 50% whole grain to qualify as a reimbursable meal. Honey corn biscuits, which are a whole grain biscuit featuring corn, provide a different flavor profile.

“We also developed whole grain pizza dough and, since they wanted a smaller serving, we developed a new calzone dough that is pre-portioned for a 2-oz (serving) equivalent grain,” Ms. Brown said. “The schools will fill with 2-ozs of protein or veggie or cheese (to equal 2 bread servings; 2 meat/meat alternatives). I know many family buffet restaurants are looking for easy-to-consume kid-friendly products that kids recognize from the school cafeteria.”

Kids Live Well

A total of 109 restaurant chains ranging from fast-food to fine dining operations and operating more than 30,000 locations have been approved to display the Kids Live Well logo, a program developed by the National Restaurant Association, Washington. The logo indicates a restaurant has at least one children’s meal plus one side item, perhaps broccoli, an apple, or brown rice, that meet the guidelines of the association’s Healthy Kids’ Meals program.

To qualify for the program, a product must have 600 calories or less, in total; 35% of calories or fewer from fat; 10% or less from saturated fat; 35% of calories or less from total sugars; must include at least two of five food groups; and nothing may be fried.

“We are the nutrition partner for the N.R.A.,” said Nicole Ring, director of nutrition for San Diego-based Healthy Dining and HealthyDiningFinder.com. “We work with restaurants to see what’s already on their (adult) menu that would work for a healthy kids’ menu; if none fit, we’ll help them develop new items.”

With a focus on whole grains, lean protein, lower fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables, Healthy Dining’s dietitians vet the items and, if a restaurant doesn’t have a nutrition analysis, they’ll provide it. The numbers must be a fit in order for the venue to display the logo and be listed on HealtyDiningFinder.com.

Of the many restaurants now listed, Ms. Ring points to Silver Diner, Washington, as a “shining star” in its concern with teaching children about healthy eating.

“They came up with mini bison burger sliders that fit the nutrition parameters and brought kids in for taste testing,” she said. “Silver Diner also menus a chicken ‘pizza’ quesadilla made without pizza dough, that’s served with a side salad.”