Innovators: Executive Chef Jessica James, Applebee’s

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Applebee’s Executive Chef Jessica James was responsible for their new kids menu, which has been getting raves from kids and parents alike. Sales of kids’ dishes are up 15%, and (even better for Jessica) kids are making healthier choices—sales of fries are down 30%! We asked Jessica what the keys to success are, and the role pasta plays on a great kids menu program:


What advice would you give to chefs looking to improve their kids menus?

“Break the rules about how you think kids eat. There are a lot of kids who will eat salads, try new vegetables, and eat more adult foods like steak or pulled pork. But keep it playful. Encourage eating with your hands, and playing with your food. Most importantly, offer lots of choices—entrees and sides. If you look, you’ll find the main menu has a lot of opportunity to add choice without adding SKUs or complexity to the back of the house.”

What role does pasta play on the kids menu?

“It’s absolutely a mainstay. Whether it’s basic items like buttered noodles or a more “grown up” mac and cheese, you don’t have to be an Italian restaurant to serve great pasta. Mac and cheese can work for everyone, and it’s very versatile. From little kids to more adult choices like ours, with chicken and breadcrumb topping, it can seem like a step above what you get at home.”

What’s the secret to your chicken mac and cheese?

“The sauce is pretty simple. Our white cheese sauce blended with American cheese gives that signature color and mouthfeel. Using cavatappi (cellentani) makes it a little more sophisticated, but still fun. Adding lean protein with chicken makes it more substantial, and earns points with mom. We were nervous about including breadcrumb topping with parsley (green stuff!), but it’s a huge hit.”

-Chef Jessica James, Executive Chef, Applebee’s

It’s not Jessica’s mac and cheese, but we have a few mac and cheese ideas that follow her principles: