Healthier kid’s meals rank in the top four culinary trends of 2015 according to the National Restaurant Association’s annual
survey of 1300+ chefs, but this is nothing new. Healthy kid’s meals have ranked in the top five trends for 5 of the last 7 years. With so much fanfare, you would think that kids menus have changed dramatically for the better… and you would be mistaken.
A recent webinar sponsored by the Food and Culinary Professionals (FCP) laid it on the line: The top kid’s menu entrees have changed very little over the past 10 years. Currently about 50% of restaurants offer a kid’s menu, with about 30% of restaurants offering a combo meal. Anyone feeding a child at a restaurant knows what to expect: chicken nuggets, burgers, grilled cheese, pasta, and mac & cheese, with soda and fries bundled in most combo options.
KID’S FOOD, FAST FOOD
In some ways it is no surprise that kid’s menus reflect their humble beginnings in fast food. While the first kid’s meal emerged at Burger Chef in 1973, it was McDonald’s introduction of the Happy Meal in 1978 that cemented a place for kid’s food away from home. Kid’s menus soon started popping up at sit down restaurants as well.
When enterprising businesses first conceived of the kid’s meal, child obesity was barely a blip on the horizon, and the average consumer ate out far less than consumers do today. USDA data tells us that 1970 consumers spent 25.9 percent of food dollars away from home. 2012 consumers spend 43.1 percent. The National Restaurant Association documents about 50% of total dollars spent on food consumed away from home. Bottom line, consumers today eat more food away from home, and so do our kids.
THE COST OF A CUCUMBER
The more we eat away from home, the more we benefit from more careful choices. We also used to eat out frequently, not all that surprising considering that my husband owns a food distribution company. While it took some effort to eat well for myself, the true test was navigating food for my son.
As a parent I appreciated an opportunity to spend $4.99 to feed a five year old. I didn’t appreciate the lack of choice, especially when dining at sit down restaurants. After all, these establishments served adults more whole foods, why not the kids? As a mom and a dietitian I found myself willingly (and sometimes begrudgingly) paying extra to secure a side of fruit or vegetables on the plate, or to have my son served milk instead of soda. So many stories to tell…
- I once spent over $20 at breakfast for my son to eat one egg, bacon, one pancake, fresh fruit and milk. I ordered everything a la carte from the adult menu since there was no flexibility in the children’s offerings or with the breakfast special on the adult menu. That restaurant is out of business today.
- I routinely lied and told servers my son was diabetic to score a side of fruit or vegetable at restaurants. It didn’t always work.
- After carefully navigating the menu for my son at another restaurant (lying for the vegetables, of course), the servers saw fit to plop down an enormous hot fudge sundae in front of him without any word to me. Dessert was included! I was left to deal with a difficult child, intent on negotiating a reasonable portion size. Not my finest hour.
- At most sit down restaurants servers relentlessly refill sodas throughout the meal. Who still thinks this is a good idea?
- During one vacation, while staring down yet another kid’s menu offering soda and fries, I spied a cucumber on a neighboring diner’s plate. Knowing my son loves cucumbers, I giddily asked if we could swap the fries for the cucumber. At this lovely resort, every answer was yes… and then I got the bill. $4.99 for the kid’s meal, and $5.00 for the special request.
Each of these experiences unwittingly primed me in my efforts to secure healthier meals for my son.
NUTRITION ON THE MENU
In 2002 I sat at a Nutrition subcommittee meeting for McDonald’s owners in Southern California (MOASC). Premium Chicken Salads were on their way, and SoCal planned to jump in with both feet, creating a menu dubbed “Salads and More”. The invitation to influence the iconic Happy Meal presented itself, and I jumped at the opportunity.
I had worked with the MOASC Coop years before, but in this new effort the owners sat me at the table to actively shape their effort. The regional manager turned to me and asked me what they should they do. Without hesitation I responded, “Give me a choice.”
As a mother of a 7 year old I was tired of every eating establishment serving my child the same thing: fries and soda accompanying a short list of entrees: burgers, fried chicken, pizza, and some sort of pasta. Ironically I usually found it easier to navigate the small, medium, large of fast food establishments.
To my amazement, the owners decided right then to package a carton of milk and the Fruit & Yogurt parfait with the standard entrees and call it a Happy Meal Option. A bit more than a year later, McDonald’s rolled out the Happy Meal option with sliced apples nationwide.
Fast food initiated the kid’s menu, and then they stepped up to offer families better choices. Today the Happy Meal offers their youngest consumers a choice of two fruits (sliced apples and a pixie tangerine), a low fat, low sugar Gogurt, and a 1 ounce kid size fries. Parents can choose two of the sides, and milk is served preferentially.
WHAT ABOUT SIT DOWN ESTABLISHMENTS?
Many sit down restaurants today serve the same range of entrees offered at fast food establishments: fried chicken pieces, burgers, pizza and/or pasta and the like, usually in concert with soda and fries. Some restaurants even up charge for milk or more healthful sides.
Despite substantial effort by some restaurants, Maeve Webster, a respected thought leader on consumer and food trends in the restaurant industry, insists a large gap remains between the 45% of operators currently offering healthier options and the 75% of parents stating they look for healthier options. In essence, she claims parents are looking for changes that make a difference:
- 45% of parents request healthier side dishes
- 38% of parents want milk or water offered preferentially in kid’s meals instead of sodas
- 31% recommend half portions of adult meals for kids
- 23% like the idea of “make your own” kid combos
Good ideas for sure, but I wonder how many parents actually order the healthier side dishes, or direct their child to order milk or water? McDonald’s noted that only 10% of parents ordered the initial Happy Meal Options when consumers had to choose between the French fries or a bag of apple slices.
KID’S LIVE WELL
Enter Kid’s Live Well, an initiative sponsored by the National Restaurant Association in 2011 to challenge sit down restaurants, as well. According to the NRA website, “Restaurants agree to offer and promote a selection of items that meet qualifying criteria based on leading health organizations’ scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines”. A team of dietitians work with participating restaurants to identify and validate menu choices that meet the “Kids LiveWell” criteria, including:
- The children’s meal (an entrée, side and beverage) offers 600 calories or less
- The meal includes two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy
- The meal limits sodium, fats and sugar (additional details outlined at the link above)
Despite being tied to dated nutritional guidelines, Kids Live Well promotes more balanced meals with celebrity chefs and contests. I understand the public good, but at the end of the day most restauranteurs focus on the bottom line. Do the healthier options sell? How much are parents willing to pay for healthy? More critically, will their actions back up their words?
THE COST OF HEALTHY
In a cursory review of local restaurants I found kid’s meals priced from $4.75 to $10.00 per person. Even today most of the options revolve around typical kid’s fare found at local fast food restaurants.
At $10 per kid’s meal, it occurred to me that a parent could split an adult entree, add a couple of beverages and not pay much more for two children to eat a more balanced meal. Of course that means getting two kids to agree on one entree, and having two kids in the first place. Still, purchasing a kid’s meal in some restaurants is tantamount to paying a premium for the same fare critics complain about at fast food locations. And sometimes fast food restaurants actually offer more healthful choices and right sized portions.
During the FCP webinar, both speakers presented data where parents claimed 80% of meals are eaten at home, giving anyone following the 80/20 rule wide berth to order whatever they please. Could restaurants with a full service kitchen could do better? Absolutely. Do parents and their children actually order more balanced options? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.
Do healthier kid’s meals sell? Let me hear from parents and restaurant owners alike.
Kids Live Well menu choices are available at more than 42,000 participating restaurant locations nationwide. Additional information and guidelines can be found at The National Restaurant Association’s Kids Live Well.