Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | August 2012 | By Marc Halperin

Defining Dining for Kids

How chains can upgrade the quick-serve experience to secure kids’ lifelong loyalty.

The topic I’ve been asked to address this month is kids’ dining.

Note the deliberate use of the word dining. Not kids’ eating, which would be purely utilitarian. Not kids’ scarfing, which can be a more accurate description of how young people approach mealtimes. No, today we’re talking about kids’ dining.

As the father of a six-year-old, I can vouch for the fact that most kids don’t think of their meal occasions as dining. Dining, to them, is something their parents and grandparents do, particularly when fancy tablecloths and dinnerware are involved. I’m here to suggest that we in the quick-serve world should consider working to change that perception.

Two of the major challenges facing quick-serve restaurant chains today are, first, dealing with a young customer base that’s increasingly suffering from obesity and poor nutrition, and second, the need to constantly refresh and revitalize menus to respond to changing tastes. To me, a renewed emphasis on dining, as defined below, can help address both issues.

So what distinguishes eating from dining?

Dining means consuming a sensible amount of food. Social scientists have conducted reams of research on the size of the typical American dinner plate, and the picture isn’t pretty. One study reported that as recently as the 1960s, the average diameter of a dinner plate was somewhere between nine-and-a-half and 10 inches. Today, it’s closer to a foot, which represents a surface-area increase of about 50 percent. That’s 50 percent more space on which to pile food.

In my view, quick-serve chains, which have long been associated with super-sizing, can play a role in helping diners feel comfortable eating more sensible amounts of food by portioning more sparingly and, at the same time, selecting packaging materials—from cartons to plates, bowls, and trays—that reflect this more modest approach. Yes, this would fundamentally redefine the quick-serve value proposition for many consumers. But I believe the long-term benefits (namely, a healthier, longer-lived customer base) can more than compensate for near-term trade-offs.

Dining suggests balanced meals. These meals should comprise an assortment of food types: proteins, vegetables, grains, fats, starches, and fruits. Diversity and better choices are key. Whole grains, healthier fats, and alternative sweeteners, or at least smaller amounts of traditional sweeteners, represent important tools in the quick-serve arsenal when it comes to devising menus that are both sustainable and successful over the long haul.

Dining in the 21st century, to me, implies a degree of ethnic diversity. This inherently delivers what Millennials think of as “flavor adventure.” These 16-to-30-something-year-old diners have grown up exposed to far more worldly tastes than most Boomers or X-ers ever encountered, and they’re impressively eclectic as a result. Fortunately, incorporating elements of many ethnic offerings, from the fruits, nuts, whole grains, and legumes native to many Mediterranean countries to the abundant cruciferous vegetables and healthier oils used in many Asian cuisines, can assist in the task of engineering healthier menu items.

Dining is both parent- and kid-friendly. If we want kids to learn to dine for life instead of eating for the moment, parents have to be able to teach their children how to eat by example. And that means menu selections must be palatable to young and old alike.

Finally, dining is fun. Think pho, stir-frys, bento boxes, pupusas, gorditas, and burritos. These types of items, with their varied textures, forms, shapes, colors, and ingredient mixes, are genuinely fun to eat. Don’t overlook the fun quotient when considering how to tailor your menu to changing kids’ tastes.

Ultimately, dining is about creating an environment, experience, or platform that fosters an appreciation of what’s going into the mouth. If a quick-serve meal is never more than a quick fix, the chances of keeping a customer past the point where dollars and time are at a premium are slim.

Even in the case of so-called “dashboard dining,” a creative quick-serve chain can turn this most utilitarian of occasions into something more just by, say, including an attractive placemat. Or maybe the dining set-up is placed on the dash or passenger’s seat. And since most booster seats these days come equipped with cupholders, a small cardboard tray that fits snugly into that space and provides a surface for the child’s food could accomplish something similar for the toddler set. Creating a kind of ritual, even a modest one, that’s more dining than eating is, to my mind, a key to instilling in guests an appreciation of what it is to be a diner. And in the long run, having a nation of diners will, I believe, serve quick serves in excellent stead.

Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.