The Hunt for Healthy Kids’ Meals
Growing up, our family would go out to eat mainly to celebrate special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. Eating out was a luxury and not a common practice for us. It was a real treat to go to a restaurant as a kid, but there were not as many halal food options back then as there are now. My children are much more accustomed to eating out than I was—call it being spoiled or more fortunate. Even my three-year-old loves going out to eat. But it is not always easy finding healthy kid-friendly meals at restaurants, even the ones that offer halal foods. As a parent, this is a real concern as we want the kids to enjoy the experience of eating out without having to risk their health while still adhering to our principles.
Hassan Naseem is one of the owners of a Chicago-based restaurant chain that offers Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. After living part of his life in Louisiana, he graduated from DePaul University in Chicago and dove into the halal restaurant business because he recognized the need for healthier, more affordable options.
“We grew up on fish fillets as kids and wanted to provide better options for everyone [else],” recalls Naseem, who helped launch his restaurant back in 2009. At that time, ‘falafel’ and ‘hummus’ were not readily known as mainstream foods like they are now, so the market was open for something new. “It’s been part of our goal to bring healthy yet flavorful alternatives for families, and [we] decided to pursue the Mediterranean food business.”
Since then, the market has expanded quite a bit, but Naseem’s establishment stands as one of the few major chains that offers exclusively halal meats on their menu. Their restaurants also offer smaller portions for kids, which include rice, hummus, and a meat protein like chicken shawarma or kabob, along with milk or juice and pita chips. Sounds like a lot of food; how much does it cost?
“It wasn’t just the lack of foods to eat that was an issue growing up,” says Naseem. “It was also not always affordable to eat out. So, our suburb[an] location has free kids’ meals on weekends. We want families to come out and make us part of their weekend plans. Take a break from cooking and just come enjoy some good, healthy, and affordable food,” he says.
Sanam Shabbir of Westmont, Illinois, loves taking her six-year-old to Middle-Eastern restaurants and appreciates having a healthy, halal option nearby.
“I avoid taking my daughter to fast food places,” says Shabbir, who works part-time as a teacher. “I want her to have fresh, unprocessed foods that are well-prepared and good for her. At Mediterranean restaurants, there’s fresh pita and hummus, which she loves to eat. We usually get grilled chicken shawarma with rice. It’s easy to eat, full of flavor, healthy, and filling.”
For Houston resident and mother of five Afshan Malik, her go-to choice for a healthy and halal eatery is also a Mediterranean option. It gives a nice alternative to the South-Asian or American cuisines she makes at home, and she appreciates the emphasis on fresh foods and meats and the wholesome veggie options available at Mediterranean restaurants.
“There isn’t always a separate menu for kids at Mediterranean restaurants, but the whole family is still able to enjoy the food,” shares Malik, who is a writer and also works as a project manager for a publishing press. “Their food is nutritious and tastes great. Even the rice is super delicious and a favorite of the kids. I think the best part is that they don’t add preservatives, and the food doesn’t flare up my kids’ allergies.”
Nur Syed of Dallas, Texas, knows what it is like to have to be selective in what she can eat as she had many food sensitivities as a child. Now, as a pre-teen, she avoids certain foods but feels comfortable eating at Mediterranean restaurants.
“I’ve grown aware of what foods trigger my sensitivities and have learned to avoid them,” shares the avid reader and middle schooler. “To make it easy on all of us, we just choose to go to Arab restaurants. I get to easily enjoy the meats and veggies there without worry. My favorite part, though, is being served fresh-baked pita straight out of a clay oven. I’m getting hungry just talking about it,” she giggles.
Another favorite for Shabbir is dining at Italian restaurants as a family. Instead of the usual ‘mac & cheese,’ she looks for places with more variety and flavor. “It doesn’t have to be an elaborate pasta dish,” Shabbir notes. “My daughter will even enjoy simple noodles with butter or a personal-sized pizza made from scratch; it’s the freshness that matters. I love seeing her eyes light up when the waiter sprinkles fresh cheese over her plate,” she shares.
Aside from Mediterranean and Italian cuisines, some kids simply do want halal versions of staple American fast-foods like burgers and chicken nuggets. For the last four-and-a-half years, Sarwar Ghani and his Illinois family-owned business has been working hard to provide those same foods, but fresh and unprocessed. They have a large selection of kid-friendly foods available at their multiple locations.
“We wanted to be able to cater to millennials and serve good, quality [halal] fast foods,” tells Ghani, a father of two from Wheaton, Illinois. “All our chicken is coated in fresh batter and everything is made-to-order. We want to make eating out a satisfying and fun experience for the whole family and have upgraded our facilities to accommodate large groups. Eating is a communal affair and should always be enjoyable and memorable.”
As a mother of three young boys with very distinct and different tastes in food, Asia Rizvi finds Indian restaurants to be a unanimous favorite choice amongst them.
“Unfortunately, it’s not always the healthiest choice,” admits Rizvi, who is a dress designer living in Wood Dale, Illinois. “It’s hard to find healthy and kid-centered menus in Indian/Pakistani restaurants, and my boys always go for the biryani, nihari, or butter chicken options. I don’t stress about it too much, though. I think once in a while such treats are okay. [The] majority of the time I cook at home, as it is very important to me; but we can all use a break every now and then, right?” she says jokingly.
Saima Ahmed of Schaumburg, Illinois, agrees with Rizvi about the lack of kid-centric menus at Indian restaurants and worries about her kids potentially developing poor eating habits. She too makes a sincere effort to cook healthy meals at home and bring nutritious snacks and groceries into the house for her family. The Chicago native values healthy eating much more now as a mother than she did growing up. She can see the consequences it has had on her as an adult and does not want her three children to go through similar issues as a result of making the wrong food choices.
“I think the toughest thing for me is to resist my sweet tooth, and I find myself being stealth about it around my children. It shouldn’t be like that,” says the kindergarten teacher. “I hope my kids can appreciate good, wholesome food as part of a healthy lifestyle. I haven’t been able to set the best example, but we can all learn from the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. He taught us how to eat, what to eat, and when to eat, and these are practical, timeless and universal examples for us to use even today,” Ahmed says.
Keeping kids’ needs in mind, restaurant-owner Nausheen Fatima of Glendale Heights, Illinois, has designed a menu that caters to all types of eaters at her family-friendly restaurant. It is equipped with a bike that customers can spin to blend their own fresh smoothies, and she is even adding a kids’ corner to the restaurant soon. She opened her restaurant a year ago with the intention of providing not just halal food but pure (tayyab) food as well.
“This is the type of food we are commanded to eat in the Quran,” reminds Fatima, a mother of four. “I have made it my passion and mission to bring such foods to our communities.”
Fatima’s restaurant has had its menu reviewed by nutritionists and doctors, each ingredient carefully analyzed to cater to different dietary needs. They offer organic, vegan, wheat-free, gluten-free, soy-free, and even dairy-free options for those with specific dietary restrictions.
“I want every grown-up and child that enters my restaurant to be able to eat happily and fully, but most importantly, eat healthily,” Fatima says with a smile. “Even children with special needs or serious food allergies can enjoy themselves here.”
If you live in a place where halal and healthy eateries are still limited, try working with smaller restaurants to get them to provide halal meats. There may be meat suppliers available near you, and many grocery stores even offer halal beef and chicken now. Get creative and find options nearby to make eating out with kids easy, healthy, and fun.
Tayyaba Syed is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has been featured on numerous publications including NPR. She recently co-authored her first children’s book. She lives with her husband and three children in Illinois.