American food culture is changing, and the effects can be seen in the eating habits of families. Generation X parents, on average, are spending 47 percent of their food budget on meals away from the home. This creates a great opportunity for restaurants to expand the menu options for children to attract more customers. With childhood obesity rates climbing to nearly 20 percent in 2011, restaurants have also encountered a growing demand for healthier food options. By recognizing today’s children as tomorrow’s adult customers and by avoiding kids menu clichés, restaurants are finding new ways to be successful in the ever evolving American market.
More Healthy Choices
Yes, there is no doubt that many kids love chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, and pizza. These classic kids menu items are still popular, but trends are changing. Studies have shown that three out of four children are open to ordering vegetables at a restaurant, and nearly 86 percent of children polled stated that they would order fruit if it were available. Only 30 percent of parents believe that their children eat healthily at restaurants, even when the children are willing to eat healthy foods at home. The National Restaurant Association partnered with 19 restaurant companies to launch the Kids LiveWell initiative in 2011 to help offer healthier food options to children.
McDonald’s, the fast food giant, became one of the first major restaurant chains to begin offering healthier food options for children. McDonald’s altered the Happy Meal to include a smaller portion of French fries and added apple slices as a replacement to lower the overall calorie count by 20 percent. They plan to continue reducing the overall calorie count of the Happy Meal into the year 2015, and many other fast food chains are emulating this strategy.
Smaller Portions of Adult Items
The concept of a dedicated or limited kids menu is relatively non-existent outside of America, so the idea that children are not interested in eating more ‘sophisticated’ foods is a misconception. Kids love acting and feeling older than they actually are, and food is a great way to make a child feel more mature. We live in a multicultural and multiethnic society, and kids palates are being expanded by the growing popularity of ethnic foods. The explosive popularity of food-based reality shows has also sparked an increase in curiosity and a willingness to experiment with new cuisine. Offering child-size portions of every item on the menu is a simple and effective way to meet the demands of families that are open to trying new flavors. And speaking of flavors, many chefs opt to tone down strong or ‘weird’ spices in smaller portions, as children typically lack the fully-developed ability to distinguish tastes. A child will sometimes need to be exposed to a certain spice 10 to 15 times in order to establish comfort and familiarity.
Kids Menus as a Marketing Technique
Everyone wants to save money on food. The average American family spends 6 percent of their annual budget on food away from home, so discounts and coupons typically have a great impact on which restaurant a family will choose. Many restaurants offer free meals to children under a certain age, but seasonal promotions are also enticing. One of the best times to offer free kids meals is during the summer months, when children are out of school and parents are looking for ways to get them out of the house. Other restaurants sell kids food items at a loss as a way to keep costs low for the family as a whole. A restaurant that is both affordable for parents and attractive to children’s taste buds stands a greater chance of attracting families, but the real importance of appealing to children lies in the long term benefit: the child customer of today will be the adult customer of tomorrow. Winning over your customers at an early age will help to keep your business successful for generations to come.
In summary, kids menus should be more than an afterthought. The foods that you offer to children should consist of varied and healthy items that maintain the feel and identity of your restaurant. Nearly 27 million families in America have children under the age of 13, so ignoring or underestimating this sizeable chunk of your potential customer base is simply bad for business. While it is ultimately up to the parents to decide what is best for their children, it is the responsibility of the restaurant to provide enough choices so that the best decision can be made.