Whether it’s governed by a need for speed or an empty pantry, Canadian families depend on quick-serve and casual restaurants to fill the gaps — and empty stomachs. But, while speed and price have been the defining paradigms in the past, today’s parent is using new criteria when choosing a restaurant.
Forty-three per cent of families with children aged 12 and younger agree they’re more likely to visit restaurants that offer more healthful options, according to Technomic’s 2012 “Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.” And, the Chicago-based research firm reports that making kids’ menu choices more healthful isn’t just a matter of taking ingredients away by reducing the sodium level, lowering the fat content or by baking or grilling. It’s also about finding new ways to add healthy options such as fresh fruits, vegetables and protein.
In the face of stats that show families dine out less, healthy options are what keep restaurants, such as Choo Choo’s in Langley, B.C., busy. The restaurant won the approval of Today’s Parent as a family friendly spot. The kids’ menu has the usual breaded chicken nuggets or burgers, but there’s also fish and chips made with fresh fish they prepare themselves. About 95 per cent of the menu is homemade, including the burger patties and the buns. “Parents know we serve fresh food with no preservatives,” says Meaghan Causton, whose father still wears the chef’s hat. “About 50 per cent of the kids choose fries, but we sell [just] as many carrots, celery sticks and cantaloupe for dessert.”
Restaurant chains might find it challenging to keep the menu fresh, but Panera, a U.S.-based fast-casual spot, has made rapid inroads in Canada, using a simple approach. In fact, it takes fresh a step further with higher quality, even organic ingredients, and antibiotic-free, all-natural chicken, so parents can feel good about what they and their children are eating. Panera Kids was introduced in 2006, with sandwiches such as smoked turkey, roast beef and grilled cheese made with whole-grain bread, which looks more like kid-approved white bread. “We are expanding our Panera Kids’ menu to include a cup of Café Soup and half a Café Salad, similar to the adult menu,” says Mandy Burns, marketing and public relations manager with Panera llc. “And, we will provide more side choice options, [such as an apple or whole-grain bread], in addition to the [organic] yogurt tube we currently provide.”
But Darren Tristano, EVP at Technomic, points out that parents and kids don’t always have the same goals in mind. “Parents want their children to eat healthy meals and restaurants have to respond, but it isn’t that easy,” he says. “This generation allows children to decide for themselves, and kids may not always want the healthy option, so the key to success is choice.”
Anne Parks, director of Menu Management at McDonald’s Canada, agrees. The company, which put kids’ meals on the map, continually re-evaluates its menu offerings and, in recent years, has expanded them to include wholesome options such as lower fat one-per-cent milk, yogurt and apples. “We wanted to offer healthy choices in our Happy Meals, but what mom wants isn’t necessarily what kids want, so we took that into account. For example, yogurt comes in every meal, but kids have choices,” says Parks.
Today’s Happy Meal doesn’t default to fries and a soft drink; families can choose items such as apple slices with caramel dip and milk or juice. “Most kids want the fries,” acknowledges Parks. “But the portion is smaller, and parents often order the apple slices as well.” For parents, more than one combination allows for negotiation — ‘choose the milk and apples and you can have fries.’
There’s evidence parents are indeed making those deals. “Among total kids’ meals, there is evidence toward healthier options,” says James Fok, with Foodservice at The NPD Group, describing the firm’s CREST research from May. “Salads experienced double-digit growth compared to last year, while french fries declined by over five per cent during the same period.”
Choice has become the mantra for millennials. The children’s menu at a growing number of QSR and fast-casual spots is evolving into a veritable garden of healthful goodies, especially when it comes to sides. At Pizza Hut, the kids’ meal offers pizza, pasta and the inevitable breaded boneless chicken bites, but the sides include salads or carrots and celery, winning the chain Health Check approval for some offerings ($5.99 for the kid’s menu with drink).
Subway, whose advertising has capitalized on the healthiness of its menu, offers a Kids’ Pak with apples or a cookie for dessert, plus juice and a four-inch sandwich for $3.99. Burger King offers kids applesauce as an alternative to fries. And KFC’s sides include green beans.
“While there’s still a ‘treat’ mentality about eating out, the great news is there is much more interest and emphasis on kids’ meals in restaurants,” says Katie Jessop, a dietitian with Health Check Canada. “We have to get away from chicken fingers and fries. Kids today live in an environment where they eat everything, dishes from all over the world. There’s no reason why the kid’s menu shouldn’t reflect this.”
Many spots have already figured this out. And, while those perennial favourites such as chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and hamburgers still form the backbone of most kid’s menus, new, healthier and even internationally flavoured offerings are making an appearance. These can be as simple as the Health Check-certified grilled chicken breast strips and salad ($6.99 with drink and dessert at Casey’s), or grilled salmon with Jasmine rice and steamed vegetables ($7.99 with drink and dessert, Moxie’s).
The choices might even approach adult-sounding or international such as Chicken Lickin’ Fajitas made with grilled chicken breast, sautéed peppers, tomatoes, shredded aged cheddar, light sour cream and flour tortillas ($7.99 with fresh veggie sticks, a drink and fruit for dessert at Pickle Barrel); 1/3 rack of barbecue ribs (with vegetables, drink and dessert, $9.99 at Swiss Chalet); or Health Check-certified Japanese Dragon Chicken, a Teriyaki chicken stir fry, which includes ‘broccoli trees’ served on rice ($4.99 with a juice box at Wok Box).
The Health Check certification is an important and useful added-value for parents trying to decide where to eat, but it isn’t always up to them alone. “We recognize kids are being included in the family decision about where to eat,” says Lindsay Robinson, senior brand manager for Swiss Chalet with Cara Operations. “The market is shrinking as people dine out less, so the challenge is how to put Swiss Chalet top of mind. There are some great kids’ programs out there, so we ramped ours up to compete.” Ramping up has included offering Health Check items such as the quarter chicken dinner and giving children the choice of sides such as a salad, fries, corn or vegetables ($6.99). The final — and possibly most important — element is a Kinder Surprise, providing dessert and a toy, although a sundae and applesauce are also available. What do most children choose? Fries and the Kinder Surprise, of course. Nonetheless, it gives parents the option to negotiate a healthier main and milk rather than a soft drink, points out Robinson.
But, offering kids’ meals takes a lot of resources for a low return and at least one chain thinks it’s not worth the effort. Taco Bell is possibly the first major QSR that has opted to eliminate the junior meals. “Taco Bell kids’ meals and toys no longer make sense for us to put resources behind,” said Greg Creed, CEO of Taco Bell, in an announcement. “What does make sense is concentrating on expanding choices that meet and exceed the diverse needs of consumers of all ages.”
According to CREST data from the NPD Group, since 2007, kids’ meals at QSRs have declined by more than three-million annual occasions, while at full-service restaurants they grew by more than one-million occasions. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the paradigm shift to healthier food.
Unfortunately, the kids’ menu in many spots remains stubbornly rooted in high fat, vitamin-free fare, but the looming spectre of childhood obesity and the desire to be seen as a wholesome option are slowly beginning to drive the QSR and fast-casual markets to create more nutritious choices. “Convenience and taste still trump nutrition for a lot of families,” Jessop says sadly. “But this is changing, and a lot of restaurants are realizing there is a public good to be done with healthier options; and there’s money to be made.”