Feature: Kids Catering

BY JO AUSTIN

In light of the growing anxiety around childhood obesity worldwide, a plethora of new healthy and nutritious kids products are hitting the market. But are onboard caterers and suppliers keeping up with demand? Jo Austin investigates

Turtle muffins, a snow-covered pasta mountain, rabbit cake and flying chicken. These were the favourite meals chosen by an international jury of ten children aged five to twelve last September in a special tasting organised by Lufthansa. Five months later these very meals are being served to young passengers onboard the airline’s long-haul flights and on several long European routes. 

Created by German-born chef, Cornelia Poletto, the meals reflect Lufthansa’s long standing commitment to great meals for kids with other top chefs including Johann Lafer, Stefan Marquardt, Ralf Zacherl, Sarah Wiener and Sybille Schönberger having created meals for smaller guests since 2002.

Mother of one daughter, Corneila is committed to the idea of ‘cooking with children’. As a patron of the Altona Children’s Hospital in Hamburg, she regularly cooks with young patients there. She also took over patronage of the Lurup district cookbook project and visited various schools in Germany in connection with a ‘school canteen test’. Her formula for success with children’s menus is to ensure “they are uncomplicated, varied and taste good”. 

Many children today are already travel junkies by the time they are five, having clocked up thousands of air miles. Families are taking over more and more airline seats and looking further afield for their holidays.

Fortunately for these jetsetting families, the suppliers and culinary specialists are rallying to the cause by creating a fabulous range of high-quality, highly nutritious and highly attractive meals and snacks for children. Even Heston Blumenthal is supporting the cause at his Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow T2, where he serves up all sorts of quirky kids’ food and runs a regular ‘kids eat free’ café promotion.

But will children really choose watermelon juice over a can of coke, or kale over crisps?

Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen, USA is a cooking school and caterer that also supplies private jets. Says Mawa McQueen, chef and co-owner of Mawa’s Kitchen: “We are all about healthy food that tastes good for adults and kids. The biggest trend we see today is that kids are now eating modified versions of adult food, meaning kids eat what we eat, no separate menu. Parents are involving kids in food early in life and training them that eating healthy is also fun. Out with the junk!”

Mawa is serving plenty of young travellers with healthy, appetising menu suggestions such as oatmeal pancakes with berries; avocado toast or bagel; parfait with gluten-free granola and Greek yogurt; or almond butter toast with banana – and that’s just for breakfast. Lunch and dinner suggestions include veggie quiche; Caesar wraps with tomato, shredded carrot and bacon; grilled chicken sun-dried tomato wraps with spinach and hummus; beef tenderloin, mashed sweet potatoes and green beans; chicken noodle soup packed full of vegetables; cauliflower salad with applewood-smoked bacon, apple cider vinegar and lots of fresh herbs.  

This trend towards child servings emulating that of adults is also reflected in Lily O’Briens’ double chocolate Mousse For Little Fliers. The company’s new child-friendly dessert was developed with children to test recipes in a way no other premium confectionery brand has done for the airline market before. Using premium ingredients it carries a “clean label” with no flavours or preservatives added, and no hydrogenated fats. It aims to make kids feel special while reassuring parents that the treat is made of quality ingredients.

It seems parents are really on the look-out for healthy and possibly organic meals for their children and the response from suppliers is looking increasingly good.

Fuss-free food

Patrick O’Flaherty, co-founder of Pip Organic, a healthy juice and fruity treats producer in the UK comments: “Market research has shown that 51% of parents with children under five are ‘foodies’ which highlights the urgent need for onboard caterers to upgrade their kids’ menus with high quality, healthy and nutritious options that fulfil health-conscious parents’ demand for natural, mess-free, ‘no nasties’ products. These will in turn win travel operators long-term loyal custom.”

The company offers a range of kids’ drinks and ice squeezers which provide travel operators with a fuss-free solution for upgrading their children’s menu to meet the demands of health-conscious parents. The products are currently flying onboard British Airways’ short-haul flights.

Airline and rail caterer, Supplair, has developed an exclusive all-branded Organix ‘Goodies’ Kids Snack Box for easyJet buy-on-board that offers junk-free, sweet and savoury snacks for kids in a box with artwork and design developed specifically to attract children and impress adults looking for healthier alternatives. The box includes four components: blackcurrant & apple Stars Organic Fruit Shapes, apple & orange Soft Oaty Bar, a raisins box, and mini Cheese Crackers.

Airlines’ response

Etihad’s Linda Celestino, vice president guest services, comments: “A new children’s menu was launched in December 2016, focusing on healthy choices for younger fliers. The meals are balanced, comforting and nutritious with no additives such as added sugar, added salt, MSG or E numbers.

“We place significant focus on the comfort, enjoyment and wellbeing of the millions of children flying with us annually and are constantly updating our Etihad Explorers children’s brand which features activity packs and meal items, all designed to instil a sense of excitement and anticipation throughout their journey.” 

The airline’s Flying Nanny service also provides parents with an extra pair of hands in the air and qualified nannies in the lounges.

Awesome choices

Nik Loukas of inflightfeed.com keeps a look out for new developments and when asked about kids’ meals he said: “Kids’ stuff is awesome! It makes you want to be a kid again.”

Nik regularly flies with airlines worldwide and his most recent report on kids’ meals for CNN featured several airlines including LATAM. The airline’s executive chef Hugo Pantano says: “We want children to receive a meal that is both attractive to them, while still being healthy.” In 2015 the airline served more than 30,000 kids’ meals – all “free of excess fat and high calories”.

Kids flying Air France can play with their food thanks to Catalan designer Eugeni Quitllet, who created a spoon, fork and knife that can be transformed into a small aircraft. On flights longer than 150 minutes the airline offers organic baby food, while kids’ meals on flights from Paris include three organic items – usually orange juice, compote and a chocolate bar.

asyJet claims rethinking its kids’ inflight snack box and removing the chips and chocolate bars, it has achieved a 4% reduction in fat, 40% reduction in saturated fat and an increase of 20% in fibre. The range of Organix Goodies used satisfied the airline’s procurement team goal to ensure tasty, healthy and nutritious products for their young flyers.

Singapore Airlines has introduced a “Yummy” inflight meal service: a meal pre-order programme available for children flying First and Business. Parents can select an inflight meal that includes healthy options like poached eggs, grilled fish or roasted chicken. Each month up to 300 parents pre-order these meals for their children, but that figure more than doubles to 800-plus during the peak school holiday period.

Food for thought

KLM took a different approach to inflight kids’ meals by running a series of special test flights where parents and kids were surveyed to determine exactly what food and toys should be offered. The airline serves more than 60,000 hungry young travellers each year,
so it was important to get it right.

Unlike some of the other airlines I spoke to, Madeleine Braun, product manager for KLM long-haul says: “We found that the children did not want healthy food inflight and because of this parents preferred that we offer them something they will definitely eat instead of pushing them to eat something healthy they don’t like.”

Armed with that information, KLM set out to please young fliers with options such as hamburgers with fries and a typically Dutch breakfast of “poffertjes” baby pancakes.

United Airlines features its own-brand Ben Flyin’ Snack Box for younger passengers based on feedback from families around the globe. The box includes lots of child-friendly snacks including a turkey stick, popcorn, animal crackers and apple sauce. It wasn’t designed specifically for health but is part of a Ben the Bear programme which fund-raises for families around the world.

Ensuring the kids’ offer is engaging and user-friendly counts for a lot and packaging can be key.

Fruitypot is one company currently supplying a neat option with its JellySqueeze pouch onboard Thomson Airways. The fruit-based snack is sold in a re-sealable and non-spill pouch, making it ideal for onboard consumption.

Immersive insights

If it’s child-friendly branding that makes a difference, the happiest flight of all for children must surely be EVA Air’s Hello Kitty jets with more than 100 branded inflight Hello Kitty items. Hello Kitty inflight cuisine is colourful, with kids’ meals served in Hello Kitty boxes with bow-tie shaped bowls. The children love them so much that I hesitated to ask EVA Air how healthy they are!