CHICAGO Kids may be an increasingly desirable target market for restaurant operators, but most kids’ menus have not evolved with their changing food preferences, according to a new study by Mintel.
In analyzing kids’ menus from the past four years, the Chicago-based research firm found the same array of foods year in and year out, even as evidence mounts that parents and kids alike are open to more options, including healthful ones.
According to Mintel, chicken fingers were hands down the most ubiquitous offering, accounting for 10 percent of items on kids’ menus. Grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and corn dogs also were found in abundance.
“Our research shows parents want more nutritious options for their kids, and children are open to fruits, veggies and healthier versions of standard fare,” said Maria Caranfa, director of Mintel Menu Insights. But, she added, “The generic kids' menu really doesn't meet the needs and desires of today's families.”
Only three in 10 parents said their children eat healthfully in restaurants. At the same time, 77 percent of children surveyed said they are open to ordering foods with vegetables and 86 percent said they would be open to ordering items containing fruit.
Some restaurateurs, however, are heeding the call for more healthful fare for young diners. Although French fries still are served with 66 percent of kids’ menu items, the report found that fruits are now offered with 43 percent of kids’ meals, and vegetables are offered with 39 percent. Rice and salad also are edging their way onto kids’ plates, appearing as a side option with 18 percent of kids’ entrees.
The word “fresh” also is cropping up on kids’ menus more often to designate healthfulness. While it appeared with only 8 percent of items in the second quarter of 2005, it appeared with 17 percent of items in the second quarter of 2009, Mintel said.
Caranfa pointed to such items as the grilled chicken strips with a fresh garden salad available at Bob Evans and the Apple Fries at Burger King as the sort of kids’ offerings other operators should aspire to offer.
“Restaurants dabble in healthier menus for kids, but there's still significant work to be done,” Caranfa said. “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.”
The findings are in line with those released two weeks ago by brand marketing agency C3 and Technomic, another Chicago-based research firm. That study found  that while children still tend to order French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets when eating out, kids are increasingly open to more healthful choices.