More than any generation before, kids today have enormous spending power and strongly influence
household purchases; they have even more influence in foodservice decisions.

Children’s meals used to be the most predictable part of a restaurant menu--a standard list of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, PB&J, cheese pizza and mac-and-cheese plates. But today, these old favorites are being joined or supplanted by a wider array of more adult, better-for-you fare.

The sheer quantity of kids’ meal items is proliferating not just because of broader menus, but also because a number of restaurants are introducing kids’ menus for the first time. Among those that inaugurated kids’ menus last year:
* The Cheesecake Factory, whose new menu for the 10-and-under set includes such dishes as two bite-sized sliders or Southern-fried chicken sliders with fries; pasta dishes with various sauces or butter and Parmesan; and grilled chicken with vegetables and potatoes.
* P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, whose child-friendly entrées, designed to introduce kids to Chinese cuisine, include Kid’s Chicken with honey or sweet-and-sour dipping sauce; Kid’s Lo Mein, egg noodles stir-fried with chicken; Kid’s Chicken Fried Rice; and Baby Buddha’s Feast, featuring steamed or stir-fried snap peas, carrots and broccoli.
* Chipotle Mexican Grill is rolling out a kids’ menu featuring such items as quesadillas and single tacos. A build-your-own taco kit allows kids to pick a protein and two ingredients, along with two crispy or soft taco shells, all presented on a tray for them to assemble as they wish.
* Tropical Smoothie Café, which debuted its kids’ menu with items such as cheese pizza, ham and American cheese flatbread and a Banana Mania Smoothie.
* Starbucks, which introduced new Snack-Fulls kids’ packs; each 270-calorie, all-natural pack includes organic apple slices, a box of raisins, string cheese and Annie’s Bunny Grahams bunny-shaped snacks.

What is going on? For one thing, families are more cost-conscious when dining out. Parents who might have once ordered a quesadilla or burger from the adult menu for their child are looking for attractively priced, high-quality alternatives, and upgraded kids’ menu items fill the bill.

Parents are also more sensitive to nutrition issues and portion sizes, in part because of recent media attention to childhood obesity. In a consumer study completed for “Technomic’s 2009 Kids and Moms Consumer Trend Report,” about four out of 10 parents said that they would have a negative perception of a restaurant that did not offer healthful kids’ meals.

In addition, both parents and kids are looking for something a bit more sophisticated, “adult” and multicultural on the kids’ menu. For a recent menu trend report, foodservice research firm Technomic asked kids to construct their own meal, including an entrée, side item, dessert and drink, to see what children would prefer, if they had full control over their food choices. The result: While younger kids strongly preferred conventional chicken fingers or chicken nuggets as an entrée, older kids (aged 10-12) were far more adventurous; tweeners preferred steak almost as much as chicken and voted for pizza and shrimp by a good margin, as well.

Kids’ Meals Grow Up
Leading independent restaurants and regional chains are listing new and unique offerings for kids in greater numbers. Their menus target kids with smaller portions of premium steaks, fresh fish, locally sourced healthy foods and bolder ethnic flavors that are usually the domain of adult palates. The ability to develop menu offerings around a local, organic or natural culinary focus is a trademark of independent concepts that operate in the higher-end, fine-dining realm. Parents who value these attributes in food are beginning to steer their children away from mac-and-cheese and chicken-finger entrées in favor of fresh seafood, baked or grilled chicken, organic vegetables and premium cuts of meat.

Some innovative, full-service restaurants at the forefront of developing kids’ offerings:
* Landmarc in New York City offers Green Eggs and Ham for kids, featuring scrambled eggs, flavored and colored with a house-made pesto sauce.
* California Grill menus a kids’ Grilled Petite Filet Mignon served with Yukon Gold potatoes and Bluelake beans.
* SushiSamba, an Asian/Latin-fusion concept, offers a Baby Bento featuring grilled organic chicken, steak or salmon, served with purple Peruvian mashed potatoes, nori-wrapped rice and vegetable rolls and seasonal fruit skewers, as well as anticuchos--Brazilian-style seasoned organic chicken, beef, shrimp or vegetable skewers, served with Peruvian corn cobettes and seasonal fruit. Kids can also enjoy kiddie cocktails made with fresh fruit juices.

Fresh and Healthful
Operators are answering parents’ calls for healthier items on the kids’ menu. There has been a noticeable uptick in the number of listings of vegetables and fruits, healthy beverages and smoothies, and items described as natural or organic.
* At True Food Kitchen, a restaurant in Phoenix that specializes in healthful fare, dishes for children include almond butter, strawberry and banana sandwich on grain-nut bread; baked ziti composed of gluten-free pasta, tomato sauce, greens and mozzarella; and a chicken teriyaki bowl with peas, broccoli, carrots and brown rice.
* Jason’s Deli offers organic carrots and apples as kids’ sides, as well as whole-grain wheat bread for sandwiches.
* Panera’s offerings for kids emphasize natural and organic ingredients, including squeezable organic yogurt, organic American cheese and all-natural peanut butter.
* Big Bowl’s BBQ Pork Chow Fun kids’ entrée is highlighted by naturally raised pork.
* Bob Evans offers kids low-fat strawberry yogurt as a separate side item, as well as a dipping sauce for seasonal fresh fruit, as part of the chain’s Fruit Dippers offering for kids.
* IHOP’s Tilapia Fillet entrée for kids is served with steamed broccoli and fresh lemon; the Jr. Scrambled Egg & Pancake entrée is prepared with egg substitute and served with sugar-free syrup; and the chain’s Kids’ Fresh Fruit Dish features a full plate of seasonal fresh fruit.
* Jamba Juice features an assortment of made-to-order blended fruit smoothies, freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, all-natural pretzels, breakfast options, breads and other healthy snacks.

The Flavor Revolution
What is evolving fastest, however, is flavor. Children are broadening their accepted flavors beyond those found in traditional American fare. Operators are ramping up flavor with new dipping sauces for kids’ items and infusing more children’s offerings with chile, chipotle, teriyaki and other ethnic-inspired accents.

Among menus of the Top 250 chains captured in Technomic’s MenuMonitor online database, standard kid-friendly fare, such as pasta, sandwiches and chicken items, remain the most popular. Dips and sauces--such as barbecue, honey mustard and sweet-and-sour sauces--are used with these items to impart flavor and differentiate offerings. For instance, flavor profiles for conventional chicken offerings are often “punched up” via the dipping sauces served with the chicken. Most of these dipping sauces tend to be in the sweet-spicy category: barbecue, honey mustard and sweet-and-sour. Standouts among chicken dishes include:
* Big Bowl’s Grilled Chicken Satay--three tamarind-glazed chicken skewers served with Jasmine rice and a spicy peanut dipping sauce.
* Sammy’s Wood-Fired Pizza’s Grilled Chicken Teriyaki--a teriyaki-glazed grilled chicken breast served with green beans and a side of Mandarin oranges.

For kids’ pasta entrées, marinara sauce remains popular; indeed, tomato was the leading kids’ menu flavor at the Top 250 full-service chains, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. But now, more kids’ menus are listing garlic Alfredo and basil pesto sauces to vary the flavor.

The chart “Top Kids’ Flavors in Top Full-service” shows top flavors listed on the kids’ menus of full-service chains among the Top 250, as captured in Technomic’s MenuMonitor database.

Globally inspired standouts for children are typically represented by either Asian or Mexican flavor profiles. Technomic’s MenuMonitor shows that, at emerging chains and independent restaurants, chipotle and teriyaki sauces pop up frequently on the kids’ menu, signaling a growing acceptance and recognition of bolder, spicier and ethnic flavors. Big Bowl lists Teriyaki Ribs and Rice--teriyaki-glazed baby back ribs served with broccoli and Jasmine rice. China Grill serves bacon-wrapped, jerk-spiced chicken with a chipotle-guava barbecue sauce; rosemary, chili and garlic-marinated Angus sirloin; and sage-marinated turkey breast with a mango habanero glaze.

The chart “Top Kid’s Flavors in Emerging Full-service” shows the most popular flavors appearing on kids’ menus of emerging full-service restaurant chains.

Why Kids’ Meals Matter
Flavors in kids’ meals are growing bolder and more “ethnic”--and that is true in all menu clusters and at all price points. Flavor trends in meals offered to children by leading independent restaurants and emerging chains have notable trickle-down potential for other restaurants at popular price points. As operators increasingly emphasize reasonably priced kids’ menus to appeal to cash-strapped families, flavorings, sauces and dips provide an easy way to differentiate their offerings from those of competitors. As healthful fare is increasingly emphasized on the kids’ menu, the flavor jolt provided by sugar, salt and fried fare is being supplanted by more sophisticated flavors that enhance--rather than mask--foods that are fresh, healthful and simply prepared.

More than any generation before, kids today have enormous spending power and strong influence on household purchases, in general, and foodservice decisions, in particular. Kids are increasingly know-ledgeable, independent and savvy consumers. As foodservice customers, they are becoming more sophisticated, with evolving taste buds.  Children will likely become brand-loyal to operations that provide them with an experience and foods that allow them to grow, learn and experiment within their own comfort level. Operators and suppliers that supply today’s children with the flavors they have come to crave can expect to reap the rewards for decades to come. pf