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Trending Now: Building a Better Kids Menu
Better, healthier kids menus are in high demand today, as millennials are now bringing their kids in to dine, and with vastly different expectations than prior generations. While the top items on kids menus have stayed pretty consistent for years – chicken fingers, pizza, pasta, burgers, grilled cheese, etc. – there are signs of improvement and change on menus across the country. Consider these facts from research firms Mintel, Datassential and Y-Pulse:
- 41% of parents indicate they want larger variety of menu choices, and 21% want more sophisticated items
- 75% of parents want to see healthier sides on the kids menu
- Kids are interested in foods that are higher in quality and healthier as well as customizing their orders
- 45% of parents with kids aged 1-12 prefer to feed them whole grains 
- 59% of surveyed kids aged 8-13 preferred the adult menu choices to the kids menu
Four Principles for Successful Kids Menu Development
We chatted with Jessica James (more from her below), mom, blogger…oh, and Executive Chef at Applebee’s and creator of their hit kids menu, including their wildly popular Chicken Mac and Cheese. She offered the following principles for kids menu development:
- Add more choices overall, especially with side dishes, and allow for mixing and matching for maximum customization and variety
- Make choices more “adult” with more fresh and natural foods, more vegetables, and a bit more complexity
- Balance healthy choices with “fun food” in controlled portions, and make it easy to choose a healthier option
- Micro-target your menu so there are choices for younger and older kids, but avoid classifying the menu by age, so there’s no stigma attached to either menu
“When we did focus groups with 6-12 year old kids and their moms, we were surprised at how many kids ate salad, wanted spicy foods, and generally wanted to eat more like adults, even at younger ages.” –Jessica James, Executive Chef, Applebee’s
Pasta on the Kids Menu
When added together, mac and cheese, spaghetti and ‘pasta’ items are the #1 item on kids menus.Pasta is a popular item with kids, and it’s also easy to use as a platform for customization and healthy menu development. As Jessica James notes, “Pasta is absolutely a mainstay – whether it’s basic items like buttered noodles or a more ‘grown up‘ mac and cheese, it’s versatile, cost-effective and always a winner with kids.”
Using whole grain pasta is an easy way for operators to improve the healthy profile, while still appealing to kids. “Kids want delicious pasta, and what parents want is for their kids to eat healthful, flavorful foods. Whole grain pasta is the perfect balance between the two. It’s essentially the holy grail – pasta that’s delicious and good for you.” –Kids Marketing Expert Josh Davenport, Senior Marketing Analyst, C3: Creative Consumer Concepts
Where We’re Seeing It: Standout Kids Menus
Applebee’s: Since its introduction, sales of kids menu dishes are up 15%, even while French fry sales went down 30%. Kids and parents are instead opting for one of the new healthier sides, like yogurt and berries. The wide variety, mix of healthy and “fun” choices, and ability to customize are key; as is calling the younger/older menus “really hungry” and “really really hungry” to avoid any kids menu stigma.
Intercontinental Hotels: The 181-unit hotel chain redesigned their menu with a mix of updated traditional fare like penne with “red red” sauce, mini burgers, and more adventurous options like chicken yakitori and Chinese fried rice. Items that combine healthy and fun include broccoli sweet corn fritters and an iced watermelon popsicle.
Silver Diner: This 2013 MenuMasters award winner and Kids LiveWell participant received much recognition for their more sophisticated, all-natural and healthier menu that’s selling out the door. Teriyaki salmon was a surprise hit, while updates to traditional favorites like a gluten-free spaghetti, and a turkey or bison slider with American cheese keep it closer to home.
 Mintel “Kids and Dining Out,” 2013
 Datassential, “Creative Concepts: Kids Menus,” June 2014
 Y-Pulse, “Connecting with Gen Next,” 2013
 Datassential, “Healthy Flavors Healthy Kids,” 2014
 Y-Pulse, “Connecting with Gen Next,” 2013
 Mintel Menu Insights, 2014