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Of course, kids are typically finicky eaters. They may choose apples, bananas, carrots, milk, and juice, but just as easily could demand to eat something less healthy.
“You can introduce those healthier items, but unless parents are willing to enforce that change, it is hard to have that fight in the restaurant,” Mintel’s Giandelone says. “You have to be willing either to have that scene or give in for the sake of convenience.”
Nutrition is typically a battle that families face first at home, “and parents often take the path of least resistance,” says Jeff Davis, Dallas-based president of restaurant consulting firm Sandelman & Associates. “The reality is kids will eat carrots instead of french fries, but a conscious decision has to be made to make this part of a routine.”
Parents are serving healthier products to their children at home, and that “tends to be carried into restaurants,” says David Bohan, chairman of Nashville, Tennessee–based ad firm Bohan Advertising that oversees WhyMomsRule.com
Significant focus is being placed on fast feeders regarding nutrition, because they seem to have a distinct advantage in drawing families’ dining dollars. That’s thanks to their value, kids’ meal toys and games, and other family friendly offerings, such as playgrounds.
In recent years, quick-service restaurants have made an effort to add more nutritious items on kids’ menus. McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and others offer sliced apples; Sonic lists a banana on its menu; Wendy’s has mandarin oranges; and Chick-fil-A offers a fruit cup.
Burger King gave its fruit a bit of fun and whimsy. Its Apple Fries are apples sliced in the shape of french fries and served in a french-fry-like container. Low-fat caramel sauce is for dipping.
In July, the company also launched a kids’ breakfast meal, featuring a breakfast muffin sandwich with Apple Fries and apple juice.
One chain aligned with healthy eating is Subway, which offers a children’s menu that clocks in at less than 500 calories for a turkey, ham, roast beef, or veggie mini-sandwich (without cheese), apple slices, and milk or juice.
“We didn’t start off with a calorie count,” says Lanette Kovachi, Subway’s dietician who works with the research and development department. “We wanted to make sure the meal was balanced. The calories just fell in place with that.
“Parents themselves like to go to Subway and get a fresh, healthful meal, and it is an easier way to give your kids a better meal,” Kovachi says.
Jason’s Deli has looked at the kids’ meal as a way to build a family friendly business, particularly during the dinner daypart. At the same time, the Beaumont, Texas–based chain wanted to differentiate itself from other restaurants.
“We’re a deli with lots of meat and bread and cheese and sauerkraut and so on, but we wanted moms to feel good about bringing their kids here,” says Pat Herring, director of research and development. “That’s how we developed our kids’ menu.”
When the company decided to remove partially hydrogenated oil from the menu eight years ago, it was cut first from kids’ items. The same happened later with some preservatives and high fructose corn syrup.
“We kind of feel that kids are defenseless, so this gives them a better opportunity to eat healthfully,” Herring says.
The chain’s more than 200 restaurants offer varied kids’ meals with entrées such as an organic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, turkey and cheese sandwich on wheat bread or organic wheat wrap, nitrite-free ham and cheese sandwich, and a salad bar.
The meals, which range from $2.59 to $3.59, include a side of organic apples, organic carrots, fresh fruit or chips, and a drink of organic white or chocolate milk, organic apple juice, or a fountain drink. Organic may be more expensive, Herring says, but parents appreciate it.
Another trend in kids’ meals, according to the NRA survey, is cultural cuisine, and many Mexican, Asian, and other ethnic quick-service and fast-casual restaurants have added children-sized portions.
“Kids are getting more sophisticated in what they eat and more open to different foods,” Monnette says. “It trickles down from their parents, and it’s giving operators more leeway to do things a little differently.
During the past year, Denver-based Chipotle introduced children’s meals, including tacos or small quesadillas with a side of rice and beans. The meals, with chips and a drink, are $2.95–$3.95.
Another Denver-based chain, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, launched a new kids’ menu last spring. Its entrées are a grilled cheese pita, peanut butter and jelly pita, chicken or steak rice bowl, and a half pita stuffed with falafel, chicken, steak, or a combination falafel with marinated chicken or steak.
The $3.99 meal includes seasoned rice, apple slices or chips, and white or chocolate milk or a soft drink. The calorie count ranges from 150 to 540.
“This was a nice twist on familiar kids favorites with some Mediterranean injected in it,” says Melissa Rogner, assistant director of marketing for the 12-store chain. “We may add other items to the kids’ menu later, but we want to continue to get the taste buds of the younger people acclimated to this type of cuisine.”
Even with all the healthful additions to children’s menus, operators need to continue to focus on price and value, experts say.
“Price is still a primary driver,” says Bohan, referring to the WhyMomsRule.com survey, which found that 63 percent of the moms are choosing items from the value menu and six of 10 are seeking restaurant coupons or discounts.
There are few “kids eat free” deals at quick-service and fast-casual eateries, analysts say, because the prices already are largely at a value level. A few, however, such as Quiznos and Qdoba Mexican Grill, used it for a limited time during the past year.