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Restaurants up the ante on fare for their youngest patrons

Sushi SambRio offers one more interesting children's menus Chicago. | Provided photo

Sushi Samba Rio offers one of the more interesting children's menus in Chicago. | Provided photo

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:16AM

It’s the Holy Grail of eating out as a family — a kids’ menu with something other than chicken fingers, hamburgers, french fries — a kids’ menu with food that kids want to eat and adults want them to eat.

A local movement has been building slowly, though, to add interesting and healthy items for restaurants’ youngest customers.

“The worst food on the menu was always on the kids’ menu,” said Diane Schmidt, a Chicago mom with a public health background who suffered through a decade of bad kids’ meals with her daughter. “I got this idea to try to change it.”

Schmidt teamed up with nutritionist Carol Wagner and chef Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook to start the Healthy Fare for Kids program in December 2011. They asked local restaurants to add and identify at least one nutritionally sound item on their kids’ menus. Since then, more than 50 restaurants have signed on.

For two-time James Beard Award-winner Stegner, offering something more than a pint-sized portion of fried chicken at her restaurant, known for its seasonal fare, was a no-brainer

“When we opened the restaurant I wanted something that kids really liked that matched the rest of the food,” Stegner said. “It needed to go with the restaurant.”

While a recent survey from the Center for Science in the Public Interest concluded that 97 percent of chain restaurant kids’ meals failed to meet basic nutrition standards, chef-driven restaurants have been open to the Healthy Fare message, said Stegner, a two-time James Beard Award winner.

“If you don’t ever put the vegetable in front of [kids] they are never going to eat it,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Parents aren’t only looking for healthy food, they want something fun and interesting. Terry Park, manager of TTOWA Korean restaurant in Arlington Heights, started a children’s menu two months ago after customers repeatedly requested it.

“Usually fried rice is just bean sprouts and rice,” he said. “We use shiitake mushrooms, zucchini, carrots, lots of chives, just trying to make it a little bit healthier.”

There’s more to kids’ menus than chicken nuggets! Here are 10 restaurants who offer something different for kids:

John’s Place

Two Chicago locations, (773) 244-6430;

Grilled cheese comes on multigrain bread, as does the child-sized roast turkey and cheddar sandwich at this family-friendly staple.


161 W. Wing St., Arlington Heights, (847) 749-4493;

All kids’ entrees — the bulgogi (tender marinated ribeye) bowl is the most popular ­— come with miso soup.

Sushi Samba Rio

504 N. Wells, (312) 595-2300;

Sushi bites, bento boxes and colorful take-home chopsticks drive families to this River North hot spot in the early evening hours. The children’s menu was developed with the help of a youth soccer team sponsored by the restaurant’s New York City location.


Four Chicago locations, (312) 337-2454;

The kid-sized pasta with veggies (above), part of Healthy Fare for Kids, is a hot seller at this Chicago diner group, said Spyridon Alexopoulos, manager, though kids still delight in the chocolate chip pancakes for a special treat.

Prairie Grass Cafe

601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook, (847) 205-4433;

If you offer whitefish, kids will eat it, said chef Sarah Stegner. “I didn’t expect it to sell but it sells very well,” she said.

Shedd Aquarium

1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, (312) 939-2438;

The Shedd Aquarium is the city’s first cultural institution to team up with Healthy Fare for Kids. Menu choices now include grilled chicken sliders and sustainable seafood.


Ritz-Carlton Chicago, 160 E. Pearson,
(312) 573-5160;

More adventurous eaters can choose from the “Adult Kids Selection” on the children’s menu, which includes a petite filet mignon with mashed potatoes and glazed baby carrots. Servers will slip young guests coins to throw in the lobby fountain or food for the fish in the hotel’s koi pond.

Marcello’s Father and Son Restaurants

3 Chicago-area locations, (312) 654-2550;

Kids on a gluten-free diet can order the 8-inch pan pizza or 12-inch thin crust pizza off of Marcello’s gluten-free menu.

Ceres’ Table

4882 N. Clark, (773) 878-4882;

For his youngest guests, Chef Giuseppe Scurato will cook a small serving of any dish on the Sicilian-inspired menu at his Andersonville restaurant, winner of the Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

North Pond

2610 N. Cannon Dr., (773) 477-5845;

A three-course Sunday brunch offers granola, yogurt and fruit followed by French toast and eggs with a chocolate dessert for the young diners.

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