Catering to Kids Creates Long-Term Customers

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kids’ menus are important to profits. Not only do they attract families, they introduce children to the dining-out lifestyle. Make a small friend today and earn a customer for life.
Family eating meal together at outdoor restaurant
©iStockphoto.com/DNY59

Having a successful kids’ menu isn’t just about bringing in more families or countering the youngest veto vote. It’s about welcoming in the next new generation of customers, and building sales for the future.

These are the children of the Millennials, the most important cohort to hit the restaurant marketplace since the Baby Boomers, and there are a lot of them: nearly 75 million in 2015, according to recent Census data, including 23.7 million under the age of 5, 23 million aged 6-11, and 22.7 million between the ages of 12 and 17.

But families with kids have been hit hard since the recession, notes the NPD Group’s Warren Solochek, vice president of client development. Restaurants need to provide what families want, including speedy service, something the kids will eat, a healthy option or two to make parents feel better, and some indulgence for everyone to mark the event with. In addition, Millennials’ kids want to eat like adults at an earlier age than their predecessors did, adding to the need for restaurants to provide the right combination of kid appeal, appropriate portion size, and price point.

As a result, a number of chains that used to be associated with adults have been doubling down on children’s menus—including Applebee’s—adding features like interactive menu items, such as dippable foods; customizable choices and different sizes for different ages; and fun, kid-friendly programs. Consider Fazoli’s Tuesday kids’ night as just one possible inspiration.

In addition to the usual chicken fingers, here are some menu items and other ideas that will appeal to children and their parents.

  • Menu a few options that are healthier but still kid-friendly—from a turkey burger or hot dog to crudité with low-fat yogurt dip. The National Restaurant Association’s “Kids LiveWell” program has lots of other examples and ideas, as well as resources

  • Kids like chicken, including grilled or barbecued chicken wings, a chicken “burger” (either a breast or patty), or stir-fried chicken tenders

  • Include the option of a side dish like fresh fruit, carrots and celery sticks with yogurt dip, an individual box of raisins, or a fun vegetable like “grilled zukes and peppers” instead of the usual fries

  • Older kids might enjoy a shrimp kebab or even sushi made with cooked protein and veggies

  • Use fruits and vegetables to add color, sweetness, and texture as well as palate appeal

  • Serve smoothies and fruit juice blends that appeal to the younger set’s taste buds

  • “Hide” nutrition in the form of a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich or pasta with veggie-filled marinara sauce

In fact, many parents and nutrition experts consider dining out in a restaurant en famille a “teachable moment” about healthful eating.

Get Started: Practice “stealth health” by sneaking more whole grains and produce into foods, such as barley instead of noodles in chicken soup, or cauliflower or broccoli stuffed into a baked potato or tasty pot pie. Look to Stouffer’s® for ready-to-menu whole-grain specialties including Macaroni and Cheese made with Whole Grains.

  • Offer half portions of popular or kid-appropriate items, such as pasta, instead of or in addition to standard children’s fare

  • Items such as sliders, small plates (ie, fruit and cheese, deviled eggs), or individual pizzas are a natural to repurpose for a kids’ selection

  • A half sandwich and a cup of soup (grilled cheese and cream of tomato, for instance) are a perfect sell for an older child

  • Make foods fun, with concepts such as fruit-and-yogurt parfaits, decorate-your-own cookies, build-your-own lettuce wraps, or vegetable sushi, which is surprisingly popular with older kids

Did You Know? Nestlé Professional Action Stations are perfect for letting children and adults custom-order their food and watch it being made; concepts include everything from Wellness and Salads to International Soup and Noodles.

Pizza, kebabs, chicken nuggets, chips, hot dogs: Little kids love to eat with their fingers, littler ones because knife and fork are still a challenge, older ones because it’s fun. But there’s no reason you can’t make your children’s selections a little more distinctive, which can help make your younger customers’ experience more memorable and their parents more inclined to visit you. Try these menu switcheroos:

  • Potato “tots”

  • Breakfast at dinner, including pancakes and waffles

  • Pigs-in-blankets

  • Cheese Dreams (cheddar cheese mixed with mayo, diced cooked bacon, and seasonings, spread on bread or an English muffin and broiled)

  • Fruit-and-marshmallow skewers with chocolate dipping sauce

  • Steak or chicken on a stick

  • Ice cream cones, popsicles, and other frozen handheld treats

Remember that food allergies and intolerances (wheat, dairy, nuts, etc) are an issue with an increasing number of children—as many as 8% of the population, according to one study—so plan menus accordingly. And many parents are concerned about sodium levels, particularly in processed foods.

Did You Know: Nestlé Professional offers a whole line of gluten free products, ranging from Minor’s® bases to such ready-to-menu Stouffer’s products as Queso Cheese Dip and Yams & Apples. In addition, the growing selection of reduced sodium products now includes all Trio® products.