Until just a few years ago, kids were kids and happy to eat chicken fingers, burgers, fries and other greasy foods slathered in ketchup and salt. With children now regularly eating out at restaurants, watching TV cooking shows with their parents and being exposed to new foods while traveling, the days of basic fare have gone.

Very young children still prefer traditional items, such as hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and fries, but they tend to become more adventurous as they get older, says Sara Monnette, director, consumer research, Technomic Inc. “Kids, in general, are more connected to the world than generations before; this has impacted their exploration of different cultures and foods.”

In a report titled, “2009 Kids & Moms Consumer Trend Report,” by Technomic Inc., some 1,200 children were asked to make up their own meal to include an entrée, side dish, dessert and drink. Their answers were broken up into three age groups: 6- and 7-year-olds; 8- and 9-year-olds; and 10-12-year-olds.

Unsurprisingly, the survey found one in three kids aged 6-7 chose chicken fingers/nuggets (29%) as their main dish, while only about half of the older kids, ages 10-12, chose them (16%). Monnette explains the majority of children choose foods with which they are most familiar. The younger the child, the more true this holds.

As kids enter their Tween and teenage years, their palates grow up with them. In the report, other food favorites in the 10-12 age group were steak (15%), pizza (12%) and shrimp (11%). Monnette says it was as surprise to find the high preference of steak by older kids. “You generally don’t see it on kids’ menus. It’s something considered very adult...kids’ tastes are getting more sophisticated.” Monnette also thinks the results shed light on an opportunity: “Operators need to present in-between menus, not just adult or kid menus. A kids’ menu may not have the right foods/flavors that appeal to a Tween, or the right portion sizes. A kids’ menu is not sophisticated enough—a plain burger is not going to do it. They want a more intriguing flavor profile.” As an example, she suggests operators could present steak on a Tween menu, something that would be just as tasty, but in a smaller portion to better suit them and their parents’ pocketbooks.

To this end, some fast-casual chains are adding more kids’ menu items. For example, the Mexican food chain Chipotle is adding quesadillas and a build-your-own taco kit to its kids’ lineup. “The kid-friendly options offer a simpler version of what’s for the adults. Operators are using the same ingredients, but offering smaller options,” explains Monnette.

In terms of kid-friendly fare, one of the most popular side dish was French fries, with 29% of the 8-9-year-olds choosing them, but they were almost as equally chosen by the other two age groups, with 26% each. Across the three age groups, macaroni and cheese also was a big hit, chosen by an average of 15%. Children who were 9 and younger were more likely to choose fresh fruit as a side, while older kids aged 10-12 preferred salad. Salads, which have endless variety, seem to be an acquired taste, something children learn to like as they grow up and expand their horizons.

In the beverage area, younger children preferred milk to soft drinks, but this is probably because they are in the company of their parents. “As they get older, they have more leeway and they can then choose soft drinks. Additionally, they want to emulate adults so they wouldn’t order the milk,” expounds Monnette. To this end, some 51% of all kids surveyed between the ages of 10-12 chose regular carbonated soda, as did 39% of those ages 8-9 and some 30% of kids ages 6-7.

In desserts, the 6-7-year-olds (36%) were more likely to choose stand-alone ice cream compared to the 8-12-year-olds (25%). The latter group also was more likely to choose an ice cream sundae, again showing older kids’ tendency to augment their palate as they get a bit older.

As a result of the research, Monnette notes there is a lot of detail in menus for adults. “Operators use details, flavorful words and descriptions. But, when it comes to the kids’ menus, it’s very simple, e.g., ‘baked chicken.’ However, the older kids are reading the menus themselves and it would help to have descriptions that jump out at Tweens; they are making their own decisions.”

But decision-making during the Tween and teen years is haphazard, as teens go through phases and change their minds regularly. Lynn Dornblaser, director, CPG Trend Insight, Mintel Research Consultancy at Mintel International, says that “while teens are more willing to experiment than ever before, they are still quite picky.” One can generalize, for example, that younger children do not like unusual textures or flavors they have never tried before, but, with teens, “it is hard to talk about an across-the-board trend.”

Teens do hang on to trends fiercely, although for short periods of time. This is what makes formulating successful products geared to them hard. “In most cases, very few products are positioned specifically and exclusively to teens (apart from certain personal care items),” states Dornblaser. “The differences are usually in marketing. For example, Pringles potato chips are sold to a broad market, but much of its advertising is geared to teens. In fact, we have seen only a single product in the U.S. in the last year that is positioned specifically to teens.” The product was Nature's Plus Source of Life Power Teen Energy Bar.

The lack of focus on teen food products is due to the fact their loyalty lasts for shorter periods of time. “You’d probably say they look to fads more than to trends,” said Dornblaser. Instead of seeing new foods and beverages that target teens, she predicts, “We will likely see more marketing to teens, especially marketing using new media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, QR codes, etc.).”

For more information on the Technomic Inc. report, “2009 Kids & Moms Consumer Trend Report, contact the company at 312-876-0004 or: foodinfo@technomic.com or visit www.technomic.com. For information on Mintel and their wide variety of reports, contact 312-932-0400 or visit www.mintel.com.

From the September 20, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition