Want Fries With That? Kids Say 'No Thanks' To Boring Kid's Menus

Kids have always had some input on family decisions, but today’s Gen We has more influence than the generations that came before 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 include children. Of those visits, Mintel data indicates that the parent was likely to have let their children pick the restaurant 26% of the time. Thus, it’s critical that restaurants have a strategy to increase their Gen We appeal, as these kids 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

Better-for-You Options

Today’s kids are at the epicenter of a cultural change 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% of 5-11 year olds now say healthy eating is cool (according to a recent study from KidSay).

Leading the way when it comes to Better-for-You choices for kids is Subway. All four of Subway’s Fresh Fit for Kid’s meal combos are certified by the American Heart Association with sandwiches that come in under 200 calories and non-sugary soda drink options. 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! 

Larger Selection

According to Mintel, the dominant kid’s menu items are still chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese. But today’s kids and their parents are longing for more choices to the tune of 41%indicating they want a larger variety of 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!). 

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 being brought from home) and the increased focus of today’s chefs on creating recipes for kids that expand their palettes. So who’s getting it right?

It’s no surprise that ethnic food chains like PF Chang’s do a great job with kid’s 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 palettes with items like a kid’s steam pot featuring snow crab, shrimp, and corn 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.)

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% would prefer to see free activities instead (Mintel). Providing  a more entertaining dining experience can be achieved  in a variety of ways, like offering free online content or game apps (in addition to or in lieu of a toy) or even expanding the kids menu to contain more activities.

Several restaurant chains, including Buffalo Wild Wings and T.G.I. Fridays, were reported to have recently tested an expanded kids menu that featured Random House content from its Wild About Books series, complete with QR codes linking young readers to 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 they pair a different cuisine type with a kids’ activity. So far the favorite at our house has been Greek gyros with the chance to make your own Olympic torch.

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.

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