There was a time when parents defined a family restaurant by the number of crayons it provided. But today, with parents increasingly wanting their kids to enjoy the benefits of proper nutrition and social activity, a growing number of kid-centric restaurant concepts are offering both healthful menus and hands-on activities to answer that demand.

At 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, for example, Lionel model trains deliver healthful burgers and hot dogs from kitchen to trackside table. “Those kids are nose-to-nose with the trains,” says co-owner Dale Eisenberg, adding that three generations often unload the food freight together.

2Toots, with locations in Bartlett and Glen Ellyn, Illinois, uses only 100 percent grass-fed beef in burgers and hot dogs, and is beefing up the amount of organic and gluten-free items on its menu to go alongside fries and shakes. Parents sounded the horn about kids’ nutrition, Eisenberg says, and 2Toots responded. “Did we see a giant uptick in sales because of it? No. Do we see a real loyalty to us? Absolutely,” he says.

A 2013 study by The NPD Group, a market information and advisory firm, found that nearly a third of visits to restaurants include children, presenting opportunities for operators to distinguish themselves in a new, family-centric way.

Not only are parents more concerned about what kids are eating, says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst, but children also appear increasingly open to eating nutritiously.

“They’re just much more adventuresome, much more knowledgeable; they want choices,” Riggs says. At the same time, “they are looking for an experience, they are looking for entertainment,” in ways that surpass the crayons and puzzles of yesteryear.

A 2013 study by NPD Group found that nearly a third of visits to restaurants include children.

Changing demographics may be a factor in the growing demand for kid-centric concepts. A record 40 percent of households with children under 18 now include mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner, says a new Pew Research Center study, and dads now head a quarter of single-parent families. For these moms and dads, providing the best for their kids with little time to spare might be more of a challenge.

While some traditional fast-food brands have invested in healthier kids’ meals in the last year, Taco Bell recently made waves by announcing it would discontinue its kids’ meals and toys altogether. A lack of attention to the kids’ menu from major chains could give brands like Rockville, Maryland–based Silver Diner an opportunity to steal market share in the family demographic.

The three-state, 15-unit Silver Diner features a kids’ menu with only heart-healthy options, like salmon with brown rice and veggies. Last year, Ype Von Hengst, cofounder and executive chef of Silver Diner, removed fries and soda from the kids’ menu, driving a 160 percent increase in salad sales and an 81 percent increase in mixed vegetable sales to kids. “It’s astonishing how the habits have shifted,” he says.

To get youngsters more involved in the menu process, Von Hengst invited kids age 5–10 to submit original recipes for new healthful fare, with the winners invited to participate in a taste test. Parents love the concept and have spread the word, the chef says, and most of his kids’ items qualify as nutritional fare under the Kids LiveWell guidelines from the National Restaurant Association. Silver Diner also holds weekly kids’ nights featuring guitar music and singing.

In Los Angeles, Joey Parsi, chairman and CEO of Giggles N’ Hugs, is seeking to fill a similar niche. Giggles N’ Hugs offers healthful food in 6,000 square feet of mall space, a third of which is a play area adjoining the dining room.

Parents come because they want to relax, Parsi says. “They want to be able to talk with their friends while the kids are watching a magic show or a puppet show,” he says. On Monday night, dads get to “have a couple of beers, watch the game while the kids have a big time, and mom is able to go out and do whatever she needs to do.” Giggles N’ Hugs also offers a fee-based drop-off service for children, provided that parents remain inside the mall.

The kids’ menu includes antibiotic-free beef, brown rice, grilled asparagus, and steamed broccoli. For good measure, cooks also add pureed vegetables to kids’ meals.

Giggles N’ Hugs’ net sales for the first quarter of 2013 increased 5.8 percent from the same period a year earlier. Todd Hooper, a restaurant strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon, says that while it’s relatively easy to execute such a model on the nutritional side, dedicated play space is trickier, raising issues of space allocation, revenue mix, and potential liability.

Still, Riggs thinks healthful menus for kids, supplemented by on-site activities, are here to stay. “Restaurant operators do need to do a better job of trying to win back parties with kids,” she says.

Web Exclusives