Today's kids' menus are so last year.
Mintel Menu Insights, which tracks restaurant menu trends, says the average kids' menu doesn't offer enough variety or healthy food, even as parents, kids and chefs alike call out for better options.
In an analysis of kids' menus from 2005 to the present, Mintel found the same clichd foods repeated year after year. Chicken fingers steadily account for ten percent of kids' menu items, followed by grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni & cheese, and burgers. Despite increasing health and obesity concerns, other top kids' menu items include hot dogs, pizza and corn dogs.
Do kids and parents really never tire of the same old thing? Not at all, says Maria Caranfa, RD and director of Mintel Menu Insights. "Our research shows parents want more nutritious options for their kids, and children are open to fruits, veggies and healthier versions of standard fare. The generic kids' menu really doesn't meet the needs and desires of today's families."
Only three in ten parents say their children eat healthfully at restaurants. But Mintel found kids would eat fruits and veggies. More than three in four children (77 percent) are open to ordering foods with vegetables, and six in seven (86 percent) would order fruit-containing items.
Some restaurants have started toying with healthier menus for kids. Though french fries are still the most common side (offered with 66 percent of kids' menu items), fruits and vegetables have risen in popularity (now at 43 and 39 percent, respectively). Even rice and salad (18 percent each) are showing up as kids' side options.
Additionally, more restaurants now use menu descriptors to quantify health. "Fresh" is the top marketing claim on kids' menus, appearing on 17 percent of items during the second quarter of 2009. In the same quarter of 2005, only eight percent t of kids' menu items carried the "fresh" claim.
"Restaurants dabble in healthier menus for kids, but there's still significant work to be done," said Caranfa. "Health and obesity issues, the popularity of ethnic foods and increased media coverage are creating pressure for revamped kids' menus. Soon, health and menu variety will be the new standards in kids' dining."
Caranfa points out recent innovations in healthier kids' menu items:
• Bob Evans: grilled chicken strips with a fresh garden salad
• Burger King: fresh apple fries
• Elephant Bar Restaurant: tropical citrus salad with chicken
Karen Cullen, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that offerings such as those mentioned above are a step in the right direction. She notes that a lot of what restaurants offer is a function of the marketplace.
"Whether or not they ultimately serve these healthy foods depends on how many parents and children purchase them," Cullen said. "If a restaurant wants to capture some of the audience looking for this fresh food for their children, the could easily market some of those things in a more aggressive manner and advertise those things and maybe that will pull more of those parents into those restaurants, making it profitable to sell those items."
Cullen says many restaurants already offer healthy choices: low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit just instead of a soft drink, or apple slices and carrot sticks instead of french fries. "If these items are selected," she says, "they'll stay on the menu."