Restaurants rethink kids' meals

Restaurants are seeing less of their youngest and arguably fussiest customers. Not only are parents taking children out less frequently, but kids themselves say they would rather eat at home, forcing operators to rethink their child-focused offerings.

From more healthful fare to programs designed to engage kids in the culinary process, options designed to lure in families are popping up at chain and independent restaurants alike — and working to increase sales and traffic.

“For business it has been tremendous,” Ype von Hengst, executive chef of the 14-unit Silver Diner, previously told Nation’s Restaurant News in reference to an overhauled kids’ menu. “We are getting younger families back.”

The Rockville, Md.-based family-dining chain revamped its kids menu in April 2012, increasing traffic and improving sales through the addition of such items as teriyaki salmon, brown rice and edamame. Von Hengst developed the menu by bringing in a panel of 31 customers aged 5-12 to judge the items. Twenty of those items fit the nutritional criteria set by the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program — which publicly informs parents of healthful kids' options at participating restaurants — and all of the entrées come with fruit or vegetables and juice or milk. Soda and fries are only available upon request.

During the menu’s first year, sales of salads jumped 63 percent, strawberry sales doubled, the chain sold 31 percent more vegetable sides and entrée sales grew by 2 percent, according to von Hengst. At the same time, sales of high-calorie sides dropped 45 percent and soda sales fell 12 percent.

For many, family traffic is increasingly hard to come by, according to recent reports. Most kids would rather eat at home than in most restaurants, according to Y-Pulse, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in studying kids and young adults.

A survey of 500 boys and girls ages 8 to 13 released in August found that 58 percent of kids love eating at home and 39 percent like it. That’s a 97-percent favorable response.

However, they like restaurants, too, Y-Pulse found. Ninety percent of respondents said they like or love chain restaurants with waiter service, 89 percent said they like or love quick-service restaurants, and 80 percent said they like or love independent restaurants. But their incidents of eating out are dropping, according to another study by The NPD Group.

The Port Washington, N.Y.-based consumer research firm reported that, for the year ended June 2013, consumers overall made 7 percent fewer visits than they did five years earlier — 194 instead of 209 — while households with incomes under $45,000 with kids under 18 visited 16 percent less often — 145 times instead of 173. More affluent families with kids visited an average of 181 times, down nearly 12 percent — an indication that it’s not only the economy but also other factors that are keeping families at home.

“What’s out there has not been attractive to families with kids,” NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs told NRN in November. “They want something different, too.”

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