Could healthier kids’ menus be stronger family draws?

September 02, 2009

Could healthier kids’ menus be stronger family draws?

Restaurants vying for family sit-down checks - many offering ‘kids eat free’ options as parental inducements in this recession - are missing a far better margin- and image-building opportunity to attract complete households:

Offer fruits, vegetables and salad items to youngsters as opposed to the seemingly unchanging (though admittedly tasty) kid fare of chicken fingers, grilled cheese, mac & cheese, you know the rest.

More than three out of four children (77%) are open to ordering foods with vegetables. Even more (86%) would order items that contain fruit, reports Mintel Menu Insights.

The big disconnect between restaurants and moms and dads: only three parents in 10 say their children eat healthfully in restaurants - even though the kids are willing to eat better, according to Mintel research. 

If parents think that restaurants aren’t responding to their high-priority vigilance over children’s nutrition (and spending), they’ll simply not go in order to retain greater control over what goes in their mouths and out of their wallets. If restaurateurs seem to be trying ‘everything’ but improving children’s menus in attempts to restore traffic this year, perhaps they should kneel down, look at their littlest customers, and envision the food combinations (within their restaurant format) that would best help them grow up to become strong, vibrant teens and adults, we suggest at

“Our research shows parents want more nutritious options for their kids, and children are open to fruits, veggies and healthier versions of standard fare. The generic kids’ menu really doesn’t meet the needs and desires of today’s families,” says Maria Caranfa, a registered dietitian and director of Mintel Menu Insights.

The needle is moving - though with quite some distance to go, notes Mintel. French fries are still the most common side (with 66% of kids’ menu items), but fruits have risen to 43% and vegetables to 39%. Rice and salad are at 18% each, the Mintel data show. The menu descriptor ‘fresh’ appeared on 17% of kids’ menu items in the second quarter of 2009 vs. eight percent just four years earlier. A few positive examples:  grilled chicken strips with a fresh garden salad at Bob Evans, fresh apple fries at Burger King, and tropical citrus salad with chicken at the Elephant Bar Restaurant.

“Restaurants dabble in healthier menus for kids, but there’s still significant work to be done,” adds Ms. Caranfa. “Health and obesity issues, the popularity of ethnic foods, and increased media coverage are creating pressure for revamped kids’ menus. Soon, health and menu variety will be the new standards in kids’ dining.”

We like her enthusiasm. We believe this could be one of the fastest ways for restaurateurs to re-earn parents’ confidence and help tilt the value equation more in their favor.