Kids' menus at most restaurants are as predictable as they are beige: chicken fingers, grilled cheese, buttered noodles, mac and cheese.
So Samira Nazem and her husband, Daniel Goff, make it a point to dine where they can find more varied and nutritious offerings for their two daughters, ages 4 and 6, whom they hope to expose to Chicago's different cultures through cuisine.
"We will certainly reward places that treat kids like they can handle quality food and flavorful food," said Nazem, 36, an attorney who lives in the Lakeview neighborhood.
As busy families eat out more frequently than generations past, they are demanding healthier and more interesting meal options for kids -- and restaurants are increasingly stepping up to the plate.
Some higher-end Chicago restaurants are revamping children's menus to cater to more sophisticated palates shaped by foodie parents. Meanwhile, a growing number of fast-food chains are reducing the calories in kids' meals and removing soda as the included beverage.
The shift comes as the deep-fried mozzarella sticks that were once a special-occasion treat threaten to become an everyday occurrence. Eating out now represents more than half of Americans' food spending, up from 44 percent 30 years ago, and more than a third of their caloric intake, up from 17 percent in the late 1970s.
Concerned about the health implications, more than a dozen communities around the country have recently adopted laws mandating healthier restaurant kids' menus, most by taking aim at the sugary beverages often included in meal bundles.
But despite the threat of laws, and voluntary industry efforts to promote change, most restaurants continue to promote standard children's fare that public health advocates say is basically junk food that sets kids up for a lifetime of bad eating habits.
"Kids are not born with an innate desire for chicken nuggets, french fries and a soda," said Margo Wootan, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "That is a result of billions of dollars worth of marketing that has made it the idea of what kid food is."
'We did not dumb down flavors'
Nazem, who eats out with her family two or three times a week, finds the kids' menus at most restaurants frustrating not only because they're unhealthy but also because they're limiting. She wants to expand her daughters' culinary horizons but instead encounters beige fish sticks that likely came out of a box.
She is loyal to the restaurants that do kids' menus differently, like Urban Belly in the Wicker Park neighborhood, where on a recent visit her children were munching on edamame, dumplings, chicken and rice and ramen soup. Asked what her favorite kind of food is, 4-year-old Lila Nazemgoff, who was using practice chopsticks on the edamame, proclaimed: "Sushi!"
Kids are more open-minded than many restaurants give them credit for, said Nazem, whose daughters for the most part have learned to eat what she and her husband eat.
"Both of our kids love steamed broccoli," she said. "I don't know why. We brainwashed them enough over the years they now think they like it."
Of course, restaurants offer fatty kids' dishes for a reason. Parents don't want to spend money on food kids rarely finish, and those meals tend to be low cost. Also, many kids love them.
Taylor Wood, a 32-year-old freelance writer living in Lincoln Square, has a 4-year-old son who enjoys the lobster bisque from the Mariano's hot bar and can't get enough of salmon, which he calls "chicken fish." But the offerings on kids' menus, even at neighborhood restaurants with otherwise high-quality food, have created a cycle where he wants grilled cheese and fries every time they go out to eat. She worries denying him will cause a scream.
"There is a lot of pressure on parents to keep it civil in these spaces that are increasingly mixed-use between adults and children," Wood said, and she'd rather avert a meltdown by acquiescing to grilled cheese than distracting her son with an iPad.
"I have to pick my hill to die on and I choose screens at the table," she said.
It would help, she said, if more restaurants would offer smaller portions of regular menu items so that she could get her son salmon without spending $23.
A growing number of restaurants are taking that approach.
Urban Belly chef-owner Bill Kim adapted items on the regular menu slightly to appeal to young taste buds, recasting a chicken pho as a $4 kids' noodle soup and serving the $3 kids' edamame with only salt instead of a spicy sauce. It reflects the experience of his own childhood.
"When I was growing up, there was no kids' menu at our home," said Kim, who was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. when he was 7. "If you didn't eat what the adults were eating, you're not going to eat."
Some restaurants that cater to a more upscale, trendy clientele also have tweaked and miniaturized regular dishes to entice the elementary school set.
Mott Street, in Wicker Park, introduced a kids' brunch menu last year to encourage families to come in when doors open at 10 a.m. on weekends, offering smaller portions of items like congee or coconut pancakes and packaging them in a $6 meal with orange or kale apple juice.
Mott Street offers kids' twists on the classics, serving a grilled cheese with pimento and kimchi spread, though if a child requests a plain grilled cheese it is happy to accommodate, said chef/owner Edward Kim.
The restaurant, which had considered pushing its opening time later because not enough people were coming in so early, scrapped those plans after introducing the kids 'brunch and receiving a positive response, he said.
"It's exciting for the kid but it's also exciting for the parent," Kim said. "And it's been good for business."
The desire to expand kids' palates led D.C. Crenshaw and his wife, Alayna, to start a business to bring young families to Chicago restaurant hot spots. Little Diners Crew, launched two years ago, organizes monthly outings for children aged 4 through 12, who tour the restaurant kitchen with their families, hear from chefs about how the food is made, and rate the dishes.
The little diners have tried mussels at Presidio in Bucktown, beef slap noodles at Duck Duck Goat in the West Loop, and Ethiopian at Demera in Uptown, Crenshaw said. Parents are often surprised at what kids end up liking once they get the nerve to try it.
"There is peer pressure that has to do with that," Crenshaw said.
The couple got the idea after friends kept asking how they got their own children to eat all sorts of food -- "you have to put your foot down," he said -- and they hoped it might also convince restaurants to take more risks with their kid fare, Crenshaw said.
Devon Quinn, executive chef of Eden in the West Loop, said he enjoyed hosting the club, which gives kids an introduction to dining etiquette and how to behave in an adult setting. After the event Eden introduced a kids' menu that includes smaller portions of regular menu items that are twists on the familiar: wood grilled chicken kabob with tzatziki ranch and broccoli, or for brunch, quinoa pancakes with maple, strawberries vanilla creme.
"We did not dumb down flavors at all," Quinn said. Though, for the less adventurous, the menu also lists buttered noodles.
Taking on the chains
Of course, most families aren't dining at Chicago's trendy restaurants. Public health advocates are most concerned about food marketed to children at mass-appeal chains, and for decades have been pushing them to improve the nutrition of kids' meals amid rising childhood obesity rates.
"For kids who start at unhealthy weights, the likelihood of getting to a healthy weight is slim," said Adam Becker, executive director of of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. That can lead not only to diabetes, hypertension and joint pain, but also emotional stress because of the stigma, he said.
Sixteen percent of 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois are obese, and the rate is far higher in some black and Latino communities. In Chicago's South Lawndale neighborhood, a mostly Hispanic community, 33 percent of kids in Kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade are obese, according to a 2013 report from the Chicago Department of Public Health that studied Chicago Public Schools students.
Some governments have stepped in. California last year became the first state to require the default beverage in kids' meals be water, milk or a nondairy milk alternative, and similar laws were approved last year in Baltimore and Louisville, Ky. Soda can be available, but must be requested. Louisville's law also requires all kids' meals to include a nonfried fruit or vegetable, lean protein or whole grain product.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is pushing kids' meal bills in 20 more states and cities and is in early discussions with Chicago lawmakers, though it does not have local bill sponsors. The issue got put aside in Chicago as election season got underway because some alderman were concerned the public would associate the regulation with the wildly unpopular Cook County soda tax, Becker said, and whether it is resurrected depends in part on the priorities of whoever is elected mayor.
The National Restaurant Association is addressing the concern with a voluntary program called Kids LiveWell that encourages restaurants to provide at least one meal and one side that meet nutritional guidelines for children. More than 100 restaurants -- including Outback, Denny's, and Dairy Queen -- have signed up.
But Wootan said one nutritious option is hardly enough to make healthy seem like the norm rather than a punishment. At a minimum, half of the menu items should meet nutrition guidelines, with the aim of getting the whole menu there, she said.
Panera Bread has found it doesn't need a standard kids' menu to do good business. In addition to offering half portions of all its regular menu items -- it committed to removing all artificial ingredients four years ago -- its kids' menu showcases soups and salads and includes a squeezable organic yogurt as the default side. It doesn't bundle beverages, encouraging kids instead to have a cup of water, and doesn't include toys.
"We don't want to entice them with gimmicks," said Sara Burnett, vice president of wellness and policy. "We were very intentional about that."
McDonald's, where a quarter of visits are family trips, has been commended for trying to improve kids' options.
The Chicago-based fast-food giant last year announced a global goal to make 50 percent of its Happy Meal combinations listed on menus compliant with kid-friendly nutritional criteria by 2022, up from 28 percent currently. The change came early to U.S. restaurants, where 100 percent of Happy Meal combinations met the standard of being 600 calories or less last year.
The chain, which has more than 37,000 restaurants globally and 14,000 in the U.S., reduced the size of the french fries that come with McNuggets, cutting calories and sodium by half. It reformulated its chocolate milk to have less sugar, removed cheeseburgers from Happy Meal menu boards and added bottled water as an option.
McDonald's in 2013 voluntarily pledged to make healthier beverages the default in its Happy Meals, and has tracked how that has changed customer behavior. After the change, 52 percent of Happy Meals ordered included water, milk, or juice as the beverage choice, up from 38 percent before.
"It is paying off," said Cindy Goody, senior director of nutrition for McDonald's USA. "(Parents) want to feel better about what they're feeding their children."
Numerous restaurants followed McDonald's lead to remove soda as the default in kids' meals, including Burger King, Wendy's, Applebee's and IHOP.
Even so, three-quarters of the top 50 chains still offer sugary drinks on kids' menus, according to a Center for Science in the Public Interest survey conducted last summer. That's down from 93 percent a decade earlier, but reflects the slow pace of change, Wootan said.
Another study by Tufts University researchers found that while restaurants offered significantly more healthy sides and beverages in 2015 than they did in 2004, less than 20 percent of meal bundles include those healthier items by default.
The reluctance to change likely stems from the higher preparation and spoilage cost of offering fruits and vegetables, the cost of logistical change, and the fact that restaurants know many families still go out as a treat, said Tufts researcher Christina Economos.
But her team's research has found menu changes can be good for kids' health and for business.
After the Silver Diner restaurant chain changed its kids' menu in 2012 to include healthy sides as the default, the share of kids' meals that included a healthy side increased to 70 percent from 26 percent, even though they could substitute french fries at no additional cost. Revenue, meanwhile, continued to grow and exceeded comparable restaurants, she said.
"People often go with the default," Economos said. "But you have to make it taste good. You can't just boil carrots."