An increasing demand

Research firm Technomic found that 21 percent of all diners choose a restaurant location based on its kid’s menu. As Millennials, a foodservice-reliant generation, now become parents, the number of parents dining out with their children will only continue to increase.

“Just as adults have moved to greater use of deals and value menus, there continues to be a shift in the way kids are ordering at restaurants or, in many cases, how their parents are ordering for them,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD.  “What has gained in popularity is the use of value menus for kids’ meals and snacks.”

In terms of menu items, NPD found that pizza is by far the most popular menu item for kids, with fries and chicken nuggets not far behind. However, there is a difference in the popularity of items between full-service restaurants and QSRs – while pizza dominates the casual dining sector, pasta takes out top spot at full-service venues.

“Kids’ tastes and preferences’ are changing. There is more to the shift away from kids’ meals and menus than the economy and saving money,” Riggs said. “Kids today want more choices and sophisticated fare.”

In many ways, QSR menus provide the genesis for the typical kid’s menu, which is then refined by other establishments. Simon Gault’s Giraffe Restaurant appeals to younger diners with its ‘TV Dinner’ format, in which a range of options is presented on a single tray – similar to countless dinners prepared at home. The tray has a selection of food spanning a variety of tastes and can also encourage less adventurous eaters to step outside their comfort zone.

Furthermore, certain items on the menu are marked with a ‘K’ in the same way that others are GF or V. The K means that reduced portions are available for children, opening up the menu and especially the vegetarian and vegan options which may not always be present on a standard kid’s menu.

“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to kids menus,” said Sharon Olson, executive director of marketing research business Y-Pulse. “In fact, some of the best things we have seen are from chef-driven, family-casual restaurants that don’t have a dedicated kids menu but have lots of kid-friendly items on the regular menu.”

More than just providing appealing food, restaurants also need to think of the experience they are providing to their smallest customers. Michael Dearth of Baduzzi in Auckland believes that it’s not just enough to provide the food – there also needs to be enough to keep children occupied during the meal.

“The menu itself has to be entertaining, with games and riddles,” he said. “We aim to provide a balanced meal fast enough not to keep your children waiting too long. For some special occasions we allow them to create their own desserts too. Kids love to jump in the kitchen and play with sorbets, chocolate, merengue and all the sweet things!”

The US is leading the way when it comes to innovation around the child restaurant experience. In 2016, popular chain Chick-Fil-A launched its “Mom Valet” service. Parents with children can order their food through the drive-thru before entering the restaurant, where staff will prepare a table with the food and a high chair if necessary. The service is specifically targeted at the 18-35 age range and was instituted as a way to help parents with multiple children, who have to keep an eye on them while ordering food. The initiative was a success upon its launch and has since expanded across the country.