How restaurants are winning over the youngest diners

Modern kids menus are tempting millennial parents and their children.

Kids menus—particularly at chain restaurants—have taken a beating for being unhealthy, uninteresting and unevolved. But while parents have pushed for the elimination of sugary soft drinks and the addition of fruit and veggies, it’s not just healthier menu choices that make a restaurant kid-friendly. Service, ambiance and the dining experience as a whole matter to parents and their children—especially the largest group of parents: millennials.

When researcher Technomic asked millennial parents to name the most kid-friendly chains as part of its Consumer Brand Metrics survey, Chick-fil-A topped the list. One mom’s comment echoed what dozens of respondents said: “The food is always hot and fresh, employees give outstanding customer service and the environment is kid-friendly.” For a full-service experience, millennial parents also look for attentive service, fresh food and friendly waitstaff. (See below for what those parents had to say about other chains that were among the top 10 for kid-friendliness.)

Out with the kids menu?

The service element is extremely important to creating a positive dining-out experience, so all customers—even the kids—feel special, says Michael Makuch, department chair in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. He also believes that restaurants can turn dinner into an opportunity for kids to learn about food. Makuch, who runs a culinary nutrition outreach program in schools, feels the best way to achieve this is through family-style meals.

“Restaurants produce ‘family meal’ for staff; why not extend the concept to customers and create family meals to share?” he suggests. Allowing kids to choose from platters of healthier food that’s not restrictive expands their palates beyond chicken fingers and fries. The idea also gives parents a chance to model good eating habits and encourages interaction around the dinner table, he says. Although Makuch realizes that most chains aren’t ready to chuck the kids menu, the family meal can be presented as an alternative. It’s also delivery-friendly, he adds.

on the border culinary

In with interactive, kid-tested food

Makuch also is in favor of creating interaction between the restaurant kitchen and young customers. When possible, he suggests letting kids help finish a dish at the table. “They can get involved by sprinkling fresh herbs over the dish or sprinkling shredded cheese on tacos,” he says.

Brian Campbell, director of culinary for Dallas-based On the Border, took interaction one step further. He wasn’t having much luck getting customers to order the healthier items from the kids menu, he says, so he partnered with Texas ProStart students at local high schools to develop more kid-friendly dishes. ProStart, a curriculum developed by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, is a two-year program that teaches high schoolers culinary skills and provides real-life restaurant experience. The students also were trained by a dietitian from Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas to develop healthy menu items according to Kids Fit guidelines. A meal has to be under 600 calories and incorporate one serving each of fruits and vegetables.

“The hospital paired us up with culinary teams from five area high schools, and we gave them free rein of On the Border’s pantry and test kitchen,” says Campbell. “These young cooks have more insight into what kids want and added excitement to the project.”

The teams competed to earn a spot on the menu; Cheesy Chicken Taquitos, created by students from Rockwall ISD, was the winner. On the Border even brought in an 8-year-old as one of the judges. The taquito meal, which debuted June 4, includes a seasonal fresh fruit cup and a dollop of queso. “We changed the recipe very little, removing some of the refried beans to keep calories in check and adding corn in place of spinach to make it more efficient for every restaurant,” says Campbell.

Campbell says On the Border’s lively atmosphere and interactive servers make it popular with families, and he’s hoping that working with ProStart and the hospital’s program will give kids tasty, healthy options that become favorites.

Ryan Eason, manager of community relations for Medical City Children’s Hospital, reports that Kids Fit menus have expanded to other restaurants and more operators are developing items with ProStart students. Typically, restaurants only get 2% to 4% of revenue from kids meals, he says, but 280,000 orders have come in from Kids Fit menu items. Pairing restaurants with ProStart students is a win-win, says Eason

Millennial parents’ favorite chains

In addition to Chick-fil-A, moms and dads gave high marks to four other concepts for their kid-friendliness. These are some of their comments:

Texas Roadhouse: “It always feels like home. The food is wonderful and the service is great. Five stars to them!”

McAlister’s Deli: “The food is always good and hot, I didn’t have to wait long and the staff was very friendly.”

Joe’s Crab House: “I like the kid-sizedportions of grownup food (snow crab and seafood steampots) and make-your-own sundae sandwich dessert bar.”

Which Wich: “Everything was great, the area was clean, but what really pushed it to the top rating was how awesome the people [were] that worked that day.”

Source: Technomic Consumer Brand Metrics

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