From school cooks to Michelin -starred chefs, pleasing teens and youngsters can be challenging – but also very rewarding when you get it right. Today’s savvy, well-travelled youngsters have tastebuds which extend way beyond chicken nuggets and chips, so which dishes go down the best on children’s menus? As well as pleasing youngsters, operators also need to be mindful of parents who are keen to see healthy options for their offspring.

We asked several ‘young at heart’ chefs to share the secrets to their success when catering for kids.

Hugh Miller-  Head Chef at Thurlerstone Hotel in Devon, a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels collection 

Being located by the sea we can utilise our fresh local fish supply by making new exciting dishes, to educate younger children and encourage healthy eating. The winter children’s menu consists of classics such as spaghetti Bolognese, pizza, sausage and mash, crumbed chicken, steak and sandwiches, all served with fresh seasonal vegetables, baked beans, fries or mash. The summer menu includes more seafood, salad and veg buffets, to give children as much variety and as many healthy options as possible. We encourage kids to eat more seafood with delicious recipes such as seafood pasta as a meat alternative, salmon en croute and fresh fish of the day. Adding fries and baked beans tends to encourage more fish to be consumed.

Steven Cross – LACA School Chef of the Year, who works at Park Community School, Havant, Hampshire

For my students, high street trends rule the roost and cooking international cuisine is the norm in my busy school kitchen! For me it was important to understand how to move forward and change unhealthy high street offerings into healthy nutritious compliant school food menu choices. Day-to-day, we make Mexican, Jamaican, Korean and many more styles of foods throughout our three-week menu cycle.
We find what always works amazingly is our Portuguese-style peri peri chicken. We serve this favourite with our Portuguese 50/50 rice loaded with hidden veggies and high in fibre, chargrilled wholemeal pitta, crunchy local organic salad and finished with either smokey peri peri sauce or, for the very brave, a mouth-warming chilli salsa all of which is made on site.

Richard Phillips– Executive head chef and owner of the Pearson’s Arms, Whitstable 

I believe it’s really important for children to experience eating out at a restaurant; it’s the ritual which is so unlike eating at home, there’s a choice of food, a chance to taste different dishes, sometimes a choice of table and several courses to enjoy whilst spending uninterrupted time as a family. As a father I also understand how hard it can be for parents to juggle eating out with children, not wanting bedtimes to be too late and finding a restaurant that serves food you want to eat too. So this is why we’ve created a Family Friendly sitting at the Pearson’s Arms, a place where parents can relax knowing their children are welcome. We
want to make the experience as easy as possible, so we open service at 5.30pm for three nights a week, we have a special children’s menu or can adapt anything on our à la carte.

Mark Budd- executive head chef, Bovey Castle, Dartmoor National Park 

Our menus include children’s favourites, such as mini battered fish and fries with peas, alongside healthy options, such as breast of free range chicken, leaf spinach and creamed potatoes. In 2018 we launched an
afternoon tea for younger guests, including a selection of finger sandwiches, cherry and chocolate chip scones, fresh fruit kebabs, cookies, angel cake, accompanied by milk, smoothies, or fruit juice. Happy children
equal happy parents, and it’s great to see children and parents enjoying their food at Bovey Castle.

Robin Dudley – business development chef, Essential Cuisine

When catering for children, you need to find innovative ways to sneak fruit and veg into their diets, sometimes simply changing the name of a dish can alter a child’s perception of how it will taste. My kids refuse to try a ramen but love this version of a classic (and well known) Pot Noodle. My version uses chicken, and a total of seven vegetables including baby sweetcorn, green beans, and spring onions (to name a few!) But you can easily throw in any leftover ingredients, and experiment with different meats and fish.

Marie Medhurst– sales director at Bannisters Yorkshire Family Farm

Flexibility is essential. Offer smaller variations on ‘adult’ main courses for those who aren’t keen on nuggets, burgers or fishfingers. Our small baked potatoes are selected especially for children and are a great way to put them in control of their own food choices. Serve as a side dish with fish, chicken or veggie sausages, or let youngsters customise their meal with a selection of toppings. Offer baked potatoes with street food-inspired dishes such as pulled pork, chickpea dhal, homemade baked beans, or Thai-style curry.

Warren Brown – executive chef at Crieff Hyrdro hotel, Perthshire 

When my general manager asked me to produce a healthy kids menu, he suggested I run the dishes by my own children for feedback. When I did this, my 11-year-old daughter pointed out that when she goes to a hotel on holiday the last thing she wants to do is eat ‘what she eats at home’. I realised that, as adults, we don’t dine out necessarily to eat the healthiest food on the menu. The most important element for kids is that it has to be fun. Today, I strike a balance by producing smaller versions of the seasonal dishes adults are eating for our kids menu.

Louise Wagstaffe – chef diretor, Delicious by Design 

The industry can help parents to encourage children to be more adventurous with food, and in turn that should make for a better dining experience for everybody:

  • When eating out, encourage children to order from the adult menu. Many restaurants will do smaller potions for children. If not, share adult portions.
  • Restaurant chefs – why not share your healthy recipes for families to recreate at home? Encourage the children to cook at home and send in pictures of the results. How about stickers with “I tried something new today!”

Examples of dishes that restaurants could encourage children to try:

  • Fresh salmon steak with Chinese five spice and noodles
  • Grilled mini steak or chicken with an option of fresh sauces
  • Vegetable kebabs with couscous
  • Rice dishes including risotto or pasta dishes with fresh sauce

Sarah Moor– brand mananger for Uncle John’s Signature Hot Dogs from AAK Foodservice 

Hot dogs are a winner, either in a roll or chopped up on pasta or pizza. Go for quality: customers can tell the difference, so choose hot dogs with a high meat content, at least 86%, and which have been traditionally Beechwood-smoked for an authentic flavour. Hot dog wraps are a fun variation on fajitas – slice a 50g bockwurst and serve with a soft tortilla, dishes of grated cheese, shredded lettuce, sweetcorn, chopped peppers, cucumber, halved cherry tomatoes and a choice of toppings such as crispy onions, ketchup or BBQ sauce, ready for children to build their own creations!

Emma Brown- (Human Nutrition) of Calorie experts, Nutracheck 

Kids don’t tend to like ‘bits’in their food such as sliced tomatoes in a burger, or coleslaw –so why not ‘kid friendly’ your meals, offering a small side dish of quartered cherry tomatoes or a spoonful of coleslaw or carrot sticks, rather than having everything together. And why not offer children’s meals with the same variety as the adult meals? Let them choose alternatives like a jacket potato, rice or couscous because children don’t always want chips with everything. Building their own meal is also a great idea – for example, choose a type of pasta, choose a sauce, a salad side and a drink – but ensure there are healthy options throughout. If a child has controlled their choices, they are often happier to try new foods. A great example of a restaurant making the meal experience inclusive and interactive is Jamie’s Italian: their ‘shake me’ salads are served in a jam jar to let kids shake them up themselves, which is a fun thing to do. Also think about how the food is served. The presentation of food influences how much all of us enjoy it, and children are no exception. A 12 year old having a kids menu served on plastic plates isn’t going to go down well! It’s important to think about what’s going to appeal to them.