Want Fries with That? Kids Say ‘No Thanks’ to Boring Kids’ Menus
Kids have always had some input on family decisions, but today’s Gen We has more influence than any generation before, and that influence extends across a wider variety of decisions. Today’s kids expect to be able to voice their opinions and, often, their parents outright ask them. The restaurant category is just one of many feeling the effects of Gen We’s strong point of view. A 2013 NPD study found that nearly a third of visits to restaurants includes children. Of those visits, Mintel data indicate that the parent was likely to have let their children pick the restaurant 26 percent of the time. If restaurants want to keep families coming through the door, it’s critical that they have a strategy to increase their Gen We appeal. They aren’t prone to go with the flow—they expect more when it comes to the kid’s menu and the actual dining experience. Here are four things restaurants need to focus on to create a kid- (and parent-) approved experience.
- Better-for-you options
- Larger selection
- More sophisticated flavors
- More entertaining dining experience
Today’s kids are at the epicenter of a cultural shift when it comes to how we eat as a society. As a result of the attention being paid to the obesity epidemic, their school lunches are being scrutinized, and greater attention is being paid to education around nutrition. As such, it is no surprise that 80 percent of 5–11-year-olds now say healthy eating is cool (up 21 percent from 2004 according to a recent study from children’s research firm KidSay). The restaurant industry is starting to take notice of this as exemplified by the National Restaurant Association’s Kids Live Well initiative, which helps eateries spotlight better-for-you menu choices for children and has grown in just 18 months to encompass 130 restaurant brands nationwide. Leading the way when it comes to better-for-you choices for kids is Subway. All four of Subway’s Fresh Fit for Kids™ meal combos are certified by the American Heart Association with sandwiches that come in under 200 calories. In addition, Subway only offers low-fat milk or bottled water with their meals in lieu of sugary sodas. Plus, their frequent entertainment partnerships with movies like Monster University and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 actually means my daughter requests to go there. Double win! Disney has even started to promote better-for-you items within their theme parks. They now place a Mickey Check symbol on kid-menu items that are fewer than 600 calories and have limited sugar and saturated fat.
According to Mintel, the dominant kids’ menu items are still chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese. But today’s children and their parents are longing for more choices to the tune of 41 percent indicating they want a larger variety, and this applies to both entrees and beverages. Mimi’s Café and the Silver Diner both stand out when it comes to their number of kid-friendly entrees, with 11 and 20 different choices respectively. Their menus offer all the standard fare kids are used to seeing, plus a lot of things you can normally only find on the adult menu: soup and salad combo, turkey dinner, teriyaki salmon, and a chicken pizza quesadilla (yum!). In the QSR space, the regional chain Taco Bueno is one of my daughter’s favorites because it offers kid-sized versions of classic TexMex dishes, and she can get a fruit smoothie instead of the standard soda. I also feel good about letting her eat there because I know that the refried beans she loves so much are actually made from real, whole beans slowly simmered in a pot as opposed to coming from a powder.
More Sophisticated Flavors
Today’s kids are also seeking more exotic, sophisticated flavors than before. This is likely driven by two things—their increasing ethnic diversity (in a typical lunchroom you are likely to find everything from Chicken Tikka Masala to Asian Noodle Salad to a Soynut-butter-and-jelly sandwich brought from home) and the increased focus of today’s chefs on creating recipes for kids that expand their palates. Famous chef Giada De Laurentiis recently took this beyond just recipes by launching a new children’s book series that takes kids on culinary adventures through the world’s great food cities. So who’s getting it right? It’s no surprise that ethnic food chains like PF Chang’s do a great job with kids’ menu items like Honey Chicken, Lo Mein and the Baby Buddha Feast. But, there are some unexpected standouts like Joe’s Crab Shack that appeal to Gen We’s adventurous palates with items like a kid’s steam pot featuring a cluster of snow crab, three shrimp, corn on the cob, and a potato along with a menu of Beach Buddy Beverages (mocktails for kids) featuring cool choices like the Frozen Lemon Fizz (topped with a splash of pomegranate and Pop Rocks) and Shark Nibble (a blend of fruit juices topped with grenadine.)
More Entertaining Dining Experience
One of the main reasons kids want to order off of the kid’s menu is for the toy—and who can blame them? But’s let’s be honest, the majority of those toys are junk, and both parents and kids recognize that, which is why 22 percent would prefer to see free activities offered instead of a toy (Mintel). What children and their parents are really looking for is better entertainment during the dining experience. That can be achieved in a variety of ways, including offering free online content or game apps (in addition to or in lieu of a toy) or even expanding the kid’s menu to contain more activities. Several restaurant chains, including Buffalo Wild Wings and T.G.I. Friday’s, were reported to have recently tested a four-page-long kid’s menu that featured Random House content from its Wild About Books series,complete with QR codes linking young readers to videos and additional interactive content. Recently, our family came across another cool idea that checks the entertainment box: Pacific Sports Resorts offers a weekly family dinner night where every week they pair a different cuisine type with a kid’s activity. So far the favorites at our house have been Greek gyros with the chance to make your own Olympic torch and Asian Bistro food combined with the opportunity to make candy sushi.
So what’s the takeaway if you don’t happen to be in the restaurant industry? Marketers in every category need to be talking to the kids of Gen We and asking them what would make the experience better. Trust me, as a marketer and a mom, I know these kids are happy to tell you what they like, and you just might be surprised by what they have to say and how passionately they say it.