Inside the kids’ meal mind

Everyone is on the restaurant industry’s back to improve kids’ menus. The White House, USDA, commodity boards, parents, nutrition advocacy groups, the medical community and more are pushing for healthier menu options. The industry itself has gotten into the act too, under the leadership of the National Restaurant Association. In July, the NRA announced “Kids LiveWell,” an initiative to provide better-for-you menu choices for children; 15,000 restaurant locations have signed on. McDonald’s was one of the first, making a change to its Happy Meals by downsizing the french fry portion and adding apples.

There’s no doubt that childhood obesity is growing at a frightening rate, but how can you sneak in healthier foods while keeping your menu kid-friendly? To find out, Julie Casey, “The Restaurant Mom” and founder of MyKidsPlate.com, a site dedicated to kid-friendly dining, partnered with marketing firm Kidzsmart to conduct a Kids and Parents Discovery Survey in April, 2011. One side was completed by children 12 and under, the other side by their parents. Casual dining customers in Black Bear Diner, Beef O’Brady’s, Cracker Barrel, Famous Dave’s, O’Charley’s and Texas Roadhouse filled out 2,016 surveys. Here’s what they had to say.

We want mom and dad’s food. Older kids asked for bigger portions and more choices; steak got 152 mentions and chicken 137, with the latter going beyond chicken fingers to include BBQ, grilled, salads, wraps, sandwiches and pasta.

Opportunity: “Typical kids’ menu portions are not enough for a 10-year-old,” says Casey. But that doesn’t mean loading down the plate with piles of greasy food. Texas Roadhouse, for example, offers a two-tier kids menu; older children can order a 6-ounce grilled sirloin steak from the RangeR Meals menu, with a choice of fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes on the side for $7.49.

Fish and salad—items perceived as healthier but not usually on a kids menu—were requested by a surprising number of youngsters. Each received 105 mentions on the survey.

Opportunity: Who said kids won’t eat any kind of seafood beyond breaded fish sticks? Legal Sea Foods’ kids menu includes a half lobster for $9.95 and a smaller portion of wood-grilled fish of the day, both served with sides, fruits and veggies.

Broccoli rules. When asked “what is your favorite healthy food to eat,” fruit in general was mentioned 191 times and broccoli, 171. Fruit and vegetable choices like carrots and salad won out over any proteins and frozen yogurt.

Opportunity: Kids know that fruits and vegetables are healthy and dining out gives them a chance to experiment with new varieties. “There’s also an opportunity here for restaurants to educate kids about healthy eating—fruits and vegetables are not the only good choices,” Casey points out. Whole grain breads and pastas, lower fat dairy desserts and many other health-promoting foods can be incorporated into the kids menu.

Greater number of healthy choices. While most parents (71 percent) believe that the healthy options available for kids in restaurants are “just right,” 28 percent say there are not enough. “We can’t wait to see how this statistic changes with the [government] initiatives that are launching,” notes Bonnie McPhee, director of new business development for Kidzsmart.

Opportunity: Grownup diners are really into customization, why not offer kids the same option?  At Freshii, a Chicago-based fast-casual concept, the Fresh Kids Custom Built allows kids to choose between a soup, salad or teriyaki rice or noodle bowl, then add four unlimited toppings of their choice. Landmarc in New York City menus Green Eggs + Ham (above) for dinner.

A buzz-building menu. Adding more healthy choices for kids can trigger positive word-of-mouth; 39 percent of parents would “tell a friend” if a healthier menu was available.  

Opportunity: Free marketing! Parents—especially moms—talk up restaurant experiences, both in person and online. “Peer referral is the number one reason families with kids go back to restaurants,” says Casey. Items like Good Earth’s Turkey Porcupine Sliders (left) create buzz.

Food is certainly important to parents and kids when choosing a restaurant, but it’s not the only draw. When asked “what do you like about going out to eat with your parents,” 31 percent of the kids replied, “I like the chance to spend time with them.”


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