There Are Hidden Healthy Kids’ Menus at Your Favorite Cafes

Here's what to order for your kids (and yourself) the next time you're in one of these popular spots.

Photo by: Blend Images - Inti St Clair/Getty Images

Blend Images - Inti St Clair/Getty Images

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Starbucks and Panera cafes aren’t just for caffeinated beverages and free WiFi; they're also for after-soccer Saturdays with the kids. There are healthy ways to refuel as a family at your favorite coffee and sandwich shops — you have to know about the "hidden" kids’ menu items. They might just help adults stay on track, too.

You have to know a few "secret" code words to get some Starbucks off-the-menu items. For beverages to arrive cooler than the usual burning-hot, ask for them to be "steamed." To get a smaller-sized (8 oz) beverage, ask for a “short”. My own kids love to order a “steamed-milk steamer with one pump of hazelnut syrup.” In fact, always ask for “fewer pumps of flavored syrup” on any drink — kids’ or adults’. And did you know you can get steamed apple juice? It tastes like hot apple cider. Easily sharable and healthy food items include the Egg White and Red Pepper Sous Vide Egg Bites (170 calories, 13 g protein) and the Cheese & Fruit Protein Box (450 calories, 20 g protein).

Not all parents know that the café will gladly split a Chai Tea Latte or Signature Hot Chocolate; these drinks can also be made with low-fat milk and “less syrup”, if requested. Pair them with a surprisingly low-calorie Coconut Macaroon (140 calories) or the new Cocoa & Creme Cookie (180 calories). Kid-friendly entrée choices include the Strawberry Poppy Seed Salad (new this month) and the Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich which can both be ordered in “kid’s size.” In fact almost any menu can be ordered in “kid’s size” (a half portion) — with a kids side choice, when requested. My kids love a bowl of the 10 Vegetable Soup, and there is a whole Panera Kids Menu that can only be seen online.

"Top-secret" menu options abound at Subway. To get a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, ask for a 4-inch kid's Veggie Delite (130 calories, 6 g protein) sandwich on 9-Grain Wheat (16 g whole grains) to include only tomatoes and cheese for the toppings and to be “toasted”. Insider mom and Subway dietitian, Lanette Kovachi says parents can order toddler finger-foods by asking for a “deconstructed 4-inch kid’s sub” to be placed into a bowl for little hands to pick up the pieces. Even older kids will be happy to dunk many of their veggies in Ranch dressing, instead of eating them on their sandwich; just request a small soufflé cup of salad dressing to dip cucumber slices, bell peppers strips, and other veggies. Don't forget, you can ask for any breakfast sandwich or Fresh Fit® (200-330 calories) 6-inch sandwich to be split between two children.

At Dunkin’, there are a few tricks to getting a special kids’ order. Go inside the store; I found it trickier to get a specialized drink in the drive-through lane. Sometimes you can order a steamed milk — and when you do, specify a “Flavor Shot” and not a “Flavor Swirl”. Flavor Shots are unsweetened and sugar-free and come in French Vanilla, Hazelnut, Toasted Almond, Blueberry, Raspberry, Coconut and French Vanilla. Flavor Swirls are creamy and indulgent and can add about 80 to 210 extra calories (depending on beverage size); they come in French Vanilla, Hazelnut, Mocha and Caramel. If a steamed milk is not available, get Cool Mint Herbal Infusion tea or a Hibiscus Kiss Herbal Infusion tea and ask for honey to sweeten. For refueling, enjoy a Veggie Egg White Wake-Up Wrap (160 calories, 8 g protein) or try a Ham, Egg & Cheese Wake-Up Wrap (190 calories, 9 g protein).

Au Bon Pain doesn’t officially do steamed milk — but you can always ask. Or order an antioxidant-packed medium orange juice — with natural electrolytes like potassium and magnesium to refuel little soccer players. For more fueling, get a Whole Wheat Skinny Bagel (90 calories) made with whole grains and spread with Herb Cream Cheese or reduced-fat cream cheese. The small-sized Superfood Cranberry Almond Hot Cereal really is a super choice — or ask for a couple extra bowls to split a large-sized bowl among children. Don’t forget you can make a meal out of the Bon to Go cooler: Kids who like to eat with their fingers can snack on the Hummus, or Hard Boiled Eggs, or Cheese & Fruit. For a treat, pick up the Chewy Marshmallow Bar (250 calories.)

Serena Ball, MS, RD is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer, and recipe developer. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.

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