Kids’ Menus Need an Upgrade

clx0810idea1Today’s kids’ menus are so … last year, according to Mintel Menu Insights.

This restaurant menu trend tracker says the average children’s menu doesn’t offer enough variety or healthful food — even as parents, kids and chefs alike call out for better options.

An analysis of kid’s menus by Mintel shows the same cliched foods are repeated year after year, with chicken fingers at the top of the list (10% of kids’ menu items).

Here’s a look at the top 10 kids’ menu items, which remains virtually unchanged since 2005.

1.  Chicken fingers
2.  Grilled cheese sandwich
3.  Macaroni and cheese
4.  Burger
5.  Hot dog
6.  Cheeseburger
7.  Cheese pizza
8. Corn dog
9.  Pizza
10. Spaghetti

Do kids and parents really never tire of the same old thing?  Not at all, says registered dietitian Maria Caranfa, 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 3 in 10 parents say their children eat healthfully at restaurants, but Mintel found kids will eat fruits and vegetables when eating out:  77% are open to ordering vegetables, 86% would order fruit items.

Some restaurants have introduced healthier items for kids, although french fries are still the most common side — offered with 66% of kids’ menu items.  Other vegetables and fruits are gaining popularity (now at 39% and 43%, respectively).  Even rice and salad (18% each) are showing up as kids’ side options.  Additionally, more restaurants now use menu descriptors in attempts to quantify health.  “Fresh” is the top marketing claim on kids’ menus, appearing on 17% of items this year (compared to 8% in 2005).

“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.”

It looks like things are beginning to change, according to the Kids and Moms Consumer Trend Report by Technomic. This restaurant consultant asked 1,200 kids ages 6 to 12 about their dining habits.  About 80% of the children surveyed said they have tried to eat more fruit in the past 6 months, and 77% said they tried to eat more vegetables.  In fact, it looks like older children are skipping the chicken fingers and opting for healthier items from the adult menu.

Carolyn O’Neil wrote about the new dining-out data in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She interviewed registered dietitian and blogger Janice Bissex, co-author of The Moms Guide to Meal Makeovers.  “If eating out is a frequent occurrence, some ground rules should be set,” she said.  She recommends limiting soft drink consumption and encouraging water, lowfat milk or juice as healthier beverage options.  But what concerns Bissex most is not offered on kids’ menus.  “I’d like to see more whole-wheat bread for sandwiches, cut up fruit and baby carrots.  And instead of pasta in butter, I’d prefer to see pasta and marinara sauce with broccoli.”

Fortunately, some restaurants are beginning to introduce better-for-you kids’ options. That’s great to see. But even so, don’t feel limited to “kid food.”  Don’t let the restaurant define what’s appealing and appropriate for kids.  Consider asking for half portions from the adult side of the menu and encourage your kids to try new foods — going beyond the chicken fingers and fries.  It’s a topic I addressed recently in the Chicago Tribune.

I wrote about the narrowly defined “kids cuisine” and how this modern-day kiddie meal may be more than a childhood obesity threat, it may be doing something equally insidious to kids — deadening their developing palates.

“Our children’s palates are being dumbed down by greasy, salty and sweet foods and drinks,” said registered dietitian Keith Ayoob, a pediatric specialist at Albert Einstein Medical Center.  “Once they get used to these flavors, the taste threshold is set so high that fresh fruits aren’t sweet enough and vegetables taste too bitter,” he told me.

Something to think about next time you pick up the kids’ menu.

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