Feb. 18, 2014
By Alison Theureau,
Director, Food IQ
When it comes to kids' menus, it's safe to say a lot has changed since the days of chicken nuggets and mac 'n cheese. Or has it? Chicken fingers are the leading item on QSR and Fast Casual kids' menus and have grown 19 percent over the past three years. According to Mintel, mac 'n cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches are the second- and third-most popular items, respectively. To be fair, kids are now being offered fruit, string cheese, yogurt and other items in an effort to provide them with better nutrition. Parents are also starting to create more of a demand for healthier options for their children when dining out, although it's a delicate balance for restaurants to provide indulgence and nutrition during a "treat ourselves" dining occasion.
Ironically, the phrase "baby steps" comes to mind when thinking about creating a true revolution in U.S. kids' menus. Imagine a day when a McDonald's Happy Meal includes carrot fries or mini tomatoes. Or when the only desserts offered are orange slices, apples and grapes or drinkable yogurts. In the Netherlands and France, this is what you will find in Happy Meals. Kids aren't so much being "told" it's healthy and good for them. it's simply a way of life.
We as an industry can continue to chip away at the monumental task of providing so many things in one dining occasion for kids. This is truly a tall order to fill, but if it's broken down by part, it feels a bit less daunting.
Fun & interactive. Going beyond crayons and a placemat, how can restaurants be creative and also cost-conscious in providing entertainment for kids that also makes parents feel good about dining out? Is it a family bingo game that can be played at the table, with names of fruits and vegetables on the cards? Or could it be as simple as a "20 Questions" type challenge for whomever wants to join in. Parents appreciate a fun way of entertaining the kids while also educating them about the foods they are eating.
Indulgence. After days of spending time trying to get kids to eat their veggies at home, parents are seeking a balance of "responsible indulgence" when dining out. If they are spending the money on a dining occasion away from home, they don't want their kids complaining about it, nor do they feel like being negotiators with their children in a restaurant. An indulgent menu item that kids don't typically have at home is a winner for both parents and kids.
Flavor & curiosity. Many times this is a forgotten word when it comes to kids' menus, bour little diners are becoming much more food-savvy and curious when it comes to trying new things. This is one reason that there's been a shift in menu ordering behaviors. According to Mintel, 56 percent of parents say their kids' menu items are ordered off of the kids' menu at restaurants, while 45 percent usually order from the adult menu. Restaurants have responded to this demand by offering more shareable appetizers and menu selections for families dining out. This will continue to grow as the "snacking" phenomenon asserts itself into our society's diets.
Nutrition. Let's shift this idea into "balanced." Balanced in portion sizes, nutritional value, and most importantly, supporting an aggregated diet of American children today. Parents as leaders, combined with restaurants, schools, and groceries can create a better-rounded, balanced diet for children today.
We haven't really started a revolution. Or at least, not yet. And we, for quite some time, likely won't entice children with orange slices to replace an ice cream sundae for dessert. But what we can do, and should all take responsibility for, is affecting a change in our children's eating habits. According to the Center for Disease Control, the percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980, to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Just imagine when these next numbers are published for statistics through 2013. Doubtfully they will be much more positive.
Kids' menus. Evolution? Revolution? Our industry must start with one to get to the other.
Alison Theureau is a director at FoodIQ, an Innovation and Insights firm focused on uncovering consumer insights to drive new product and menu platforms.
Read more about healthy menu options.
Cover photo: courtesy of Wikipedia