Kids Fit Menu!: Transforming Plates – and Lives
If you’ve ever visited a North Texas restaurant with your kids and feared there might not be anything on the menu they would actually eat, that sigh of relief you breathed when discovering the nutritious offerings of Kids Fit Menu!® is courtesy of the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation (TRAEF) partnership with Medical City Children’s Hospital.
Since 2013, TRAEF’s high school culinary program – Texas ProStart – has worked with Medical City Children’s Hospital registered dietitians to create healthy menu options for families when dining out. Meals included on Kids Fit Menu!® feature at least two servings of fruits and/or vegetables and aim to encourage better nutrition both in restaurant and at home.
With the help of corporate sponsors, including Dairy MAX, the program is doing more than just improving kids’ eating choices – it’s also improving the lives of the rising chefs who are helping develop the menu’s meals.
An Opportunity to Overcome Challenges
Jada Ayers is a young lady whose love for cooking is as impressive as the work she’s done to overcome life’s challenges. When Ayers began high school, her mother had to move roughly 40 miles to another area of Dallas to receive treatment for some serious health issues. Once Ayers found herself living apart from her mom and the rest of her family, she began to struggle in school – and even fell ill herself. But one of her teachers, Cody Hayes, introduced her to an opportunity that would change her life.
Chef Hayes leads the Culinary Arts program at Rockwall High School and has served as a mentor to countless students. So, when he heard Ayers’ story, he suggested she apply to become a student chef in the Kids Fit Menu!® Summer Mentorship. This program allows graduating seniors to develop menu items at participating restaurants and then test those items to make sure they are operationally feasible and fit the nutritional criteria: two servings of fruits or veggies and a 550 (or less) calorie count.
Knowing Ayers’ passion for cooking, Chef Hayes felt that flexing her creative muscle in this kind of program might reignite her desire to get across the graduation finish line. Ayers was skeptical at first, thinking she might not qualify. Nonetheless, she applied and was accepted and placed with the breakfast chain Original Pancake House.
Fresh Start, New Offerings
After graduating in the spring, Ayers excitedly began her summer mentorship. She had never actually been to an Original Pancake House restaurant before, but true to Chef Hayes’ prediction, Ayers and her creative mind would rise to the challenge. She was tasked with developing two dishes for the Kids Fit Menu!®, and they needed to be both tasty and easy to make. After recruiting her managers and fellow staff at the restaurant to test a few different dishes, Ayers finally landed on one pancake and one waffle dish.
Her Blueberry Parfait Pancakes are silver dollar-sized blueberry pancakes topped with a Dreamsicle Yogurt Sauce that Jada created by mixing fresh-squeezed orange juice and vanilla yogurt. She then topped the pancakes with granola, more fresh blueberries and a light dusting of cinnamon sugar.
Ayers’ waffle recipe was inspired by her younger cousin who suffers from allergies so severe that, for a time, she could only eat oatmeal for breakfast. Having perfected her oatmeal recipe, Ayers decided to experiment with adding the same oatmeal to the pancake batter at Original Pancake House, and the Oatmeal Waffle Sundae was born! It’s a low-calorie waffle topped with strawberries, bananas, a drizzle of chocolate syrup and a few taps of powdered sugar.
Life After Kids Fit Menu!®
Following her mentorship, Ayers worked hard to gain her footing and went on to attend Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin. She credits her mentor, Chef Hayes, for his support and encouragement; Rockwall’s culinary program for preparing her for excellence in the restaurant industry; and Kids Fit Menu!® and Original Pancake House for giving her the confidence and experience she needed to pursue a culinary career.
Looking back on her experience, Ayers encourages others to push through the challenges of a new profession: “For anyone entering a new industry – and especially the restaurant industry – sometimes you have to be made uncomfortable before you can get comfortable.”
As for Kids Fit Menu!®, it’s currently featured in eight North Texas restaurant brands and will be coming soon to additional locations.