Health | January 2011 | By Barney Wolf

The New Kids’ Meals

Everyone from mom and dad to the White House is watching what kids eat these days. Here are the trends that will be shaping your kids' menus.

Kids’ menus have come a long way from the days when they were little more than sandwiches, soft drinks, and small fries for the small fries.

As parents increasingly seek out food that is healthful and nutritious for their children, particularly in light of America’s growing childhood-obesity crisis, restaurants have sought to provide menu items that are not only good for kids, but also taste great.

In fact, nutritionally balanced children’s dishes was the No. 4 trend on the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of American Culinary Federation chefs for 2011, with children’s nutrition as an overall culinary theme coming in at No. 6 on the list.

Trends stemming originally from kids’ menus like gluten-free and allergy-consciousness ranked No. 8.

“There is increasing focus on the healthy aspects of children’s items, such as having milk instead of soft drinks and fruit and vegetables instead of fries,” says Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based consulting firm.

“This is what parents are demanding,” she says. “They’re not always buying those items, but they want to see them available. It makes the restaurant a viable option.”

In fact, a recent survey by marketing website WhyMomsRule.com found that 70 percent of mothers demand the availability of healthy kids’ items on restaurant menus.

In addition to trends that deal with health and nutrition, restaurant analysts say value, including low-priced, discounted, or even free food for kids, has become the “new normal” for drawing financially strapped parents in this struggling economy.

An NPD Group study found traffic for visitors with children dropped 10 percent during the three years that ended in August 2010.

Healthful menu choices could have even more impact when national nutrition-disclosure rules go into effect for many chains. The law will require brands with at least 20 units to display the calories contained in regular menu items.

“Initially, there is going to be an impact in how well people become aware of calories in kids’ meals,” says Eric Giandelone, Chicago-based director of foodservice research at Mintel International, a global market research firm.

“We anticipate there will be a short-term shift in what parents will be ordering.”

Overall interest among operators in offering healthful kids’ menu items “has been building for several years now,” says Mike Donohue, an NRA spokesman. Restaurateurs “are looking to help parents make the best decisions for their families.”

About two-thirds of American quick-service-restaurant operators offer more healthful choices than they did just two years ago, according to association statistics.

Donohue says the issue was addressed in a popular panel discussion at last year’s NRA Show and was “prominently discussed at the [association’s September] board meeting” attended by First Lady Michelle Obama, who praised the industry for steps it is taking and urged it to do even more in areas of portion size, nutrition, and marketing.

This is similar to the message increasingly emphasized by dieticians.

“I’m glad restaurants are concerned and moving in the right direction,” says Dr. Lilian Cheung, a dietician and director of health promotion and communication in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There is a general trend to improve, but more needs to be done.”

She says eateries need to offer fruits and vegetables, whole grains in bread and pasta, smaller portions, and reduced sodium and sugar in food as part of kids’ menus.

“It is a sobering fact that children are getting diabetes in the first decade of life,” Cheung says of the fallout from the obesity problem. “Pediatricians did not see this 10 years ago. And the trajectory is not rosy if we don’t turn it around.”

But operators can’t make changes drastically and expect a positive long-term outcome, says Margie Saidel, vice president of nutrition and sustainability with Chartwells School Dining Services in Rye Brook, New York. The company manages dining at 550 schools.

“You have to change slowly, a few things at a time to be most successful,” Saidel says.

School-age kids want to customize their food, not with a large amount of choice but with menu items that appeal to their own likes and dislikes, she says. And if kids like something, a healthier version may be available.

She pointed to french fries and pizza as examples. Fries could be baked rather than deep-fried or they could be made using sweet potatoes rather than white. Pizza can be made to look familiar but could include whole-wheat flour and less cheese.

Just as important as the food is the advertising and marketing directed toward kids. It’s no surprise that commercials aimed at kids have been a hot topic for years, considering the susceptibility of children to advertising.

The issue became so important that the two biggest quick-service burger chains, McDonald’s and Burger King, became members of the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

The members agree that any advertising and media marketing to children younger than 12 must promote healthful food. For restaurants, that means no more than 560 calories per meal and less than 30 percent of calories from fat, among other requirements.

Advertising a meal with fries and soda “is not going to cut it,” says Elaine Kolish, director of the initiative. “That doesn’t mean kids can’t order that once they’re in the restaurant, but they’re not in the ads.”