Restaurants are getting more health-conscious when it comes to their youngest customers.
The traditional kids' menu at casual restaurants -- replete for years with burgers, french fries and fried chicken strips -- is expanding to include steamed broccoli, black beans and rice, and grilled chicken.
The trend is a clear response to the growing concern about childhood obesity. An estimated 20% to 30% of kids are either overweight or at risk of becoming so.
A few of the biggest casual dining chains already are dishing out the healthier foods. Others plan to roll them out by summer. Restaurants changing course include:
* Applebee's will offer a grilled chicken sandwich and pasta with marinara sauce as new main courses for children beginning June 21. New side dishes: steamed broccoli, carrots and celery with ranch dressing, applesauce.
* Beginning June 15, Ruby Tuesday's will offer kids a turkey dinner with broccoli and mashed potatoes, a turkey-cheese quesadilla with marinara sauce, and a cheeseburger wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla and served with broccoli and mashed potatoes. No french fries will be listed.
* Denny's is adding several side items beginning June 28. They include grapes, applesauce, cucumber slices, vegetable of the day, mashed potatoes and green salad. In a test market of 50,000 children, the kids ordered one of these new choices half the time rather than french fries.
* Chili's put several new dishes on kids' menus in April, including cooked cinnamon-apple slices, black beans, rice, steamed broccoli and grilled chicken sandwiches.
''We learned very quickly the minute you mention 'healthy,' the parents get all excited and the kids look skeptical,'' says Vivian Deuschl, a spokeswoman for Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Resorts, whose restaurants in May unveiled new healthy alternatives. One of the favorite dishes is the grilled chicken fingers with special sauces like mint cucumber or honey mustard. On the other hand, ''there's nothing you can do to fish that's going to make a 5-year-old like it.''
Says Jayne Hurley of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group: ''Kids think fries are the only side dish on the planet, but this could change that.''
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