How's this for a startling statistic?: The current generation of kids will be the first not to have a life span longer than their parents. Pretty scary, huh? What makes it more scary is the fact that it's 2007 and we live in the most civilized and advanced country ever to inhabit the earth . . . and more than a few people are blaming you for the childhood obesity crisis. Of course, you are not to blame, but you do make yourself vulnerable when you offer a menu that is devoid of healthful offerings.
That brings us to this year's Best Kids' Menu in America Contest. It was created 12 years ago because we, the editors of Restaurant Hospitality, believed that most kid's menus in America were simply awful. That has changed considerably in recent years because most restaurants recognize a need to offer healthful menu items along with indulgent ones. This year's competition celebrates the restaurant folks who have recognized the need to feed our children well. What you'll find on the following pages are the winners of this year's Best Kids' Menu in America Contest. You'll see from their example that they have not taken the fun out of kids' menus—quite to the contrary—and they've also added an element of health that makes their menus the best of both worlds.
Let's Get Friendly: Friendly's self-standing, triangular kids' menu is reminiscent of a puzzle that just begs to be opened.
Winner: Family Restaurants
Friendly's has won the Best Kids' Menu contest more than a few times over the years, yet it never stops trying to make improvements. Last year, it introduced the My Friendly's/My Meals Kid Menu, and it has made quite an impact. Since its introduction, kids' meals sales are up 7.2 percent. Some of that success comes from its self-standing menu with its big, bold triangular shape. It folds out like a puzzle and dares kids to open it.
As dramatic as the menu is, it's also smart. It recognizes that what appeals to a five year old may not appeal to a 12-year-old. So, Friendly's kids' menu is divided into choices for kids who are "hungry" and bigger meals for those who are "really hungry." The approach subtly caters to kids in every age category, while still giving kids the freedom to choose from either section. It also avoids the embarrassment of older kids who want to order from the smaller appetites section of the menu. Doing so doesn't mean they are babies . . . it just means they're not famished. The smaller portion size, by the way, also comes with a smaller price, which parents appreciate.
Friendly's has also made it easier for kids to order through a 1, 2, 3 approach. Each drink, meal and dessert is clearly pictured and described, and the menu guides kids through the choices in three easy steps. Kids are further empowered because they can substitute one of six different sides—including healthful choices like mixed vegetables, broccoli and applesauce—with any meal. Menu choices like add-a-salad or soup, a Wrap Session with Salad meal and nutrition-packed beverages like milk and juices also appeal to health-savvy families. On top of all that, kids are also given a breakfast option on the back of the main menu.
Friendly's menu also points kids to Friendlys.com, where they can can find all sorts of activities, download printable comics, sign up for a birthday club and much more. Many of the ideas for Friendly's menu come from its "Fab 50," a group of kids selected each year to discuss new menu designs and such. They also taste test new menu items, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of creating the kids' menu. Is it any wonder why Friendly's is a perennial Best Kids' Menu winner?
Theatrical: Kabuki restaurants have a decidedly adult decor, yet their colorful kids' menu features remarkable menu items anyone would enjoy.
Winner: Casual Theme Restaurants
Catering to kids has come a long way in the last 10 or so years. Back then, many restaurants sought to create mini Disneylands in their restaurants, with the belief that bells and whistles are far more important to younger diners than the actual eating experience. But today's kids are diners who have more sophisticated palates far beyond what their parents had as children. Sure, it's great to appeal to the kid in every kid, but don't you dare try to serve them kiddie food because they expect so much more. A case in point: Kabuki, which operates nine Japanese restaurants in Southern California.
For a restaurant that is named after a highly stylized form of Japanese theater, Kabuki is low key and cool. It's all about the food, and the kids' menu does not demean. There are a total of 10 items on its kids' menu, including sesame chicken, vegetable tempura and chicken teriyaki. Kabuki's corporate chef is Masa Kurihara, who was chef at the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC. He understands American kids and has modified the menu to appeal to their tastes.
Japanese flavors, for some reason, appeal to kids, which may explain why the folks behind P.F. Chang's are setting out to create another Asian chain of restaurants, this one with a Japanese focus. At Kabuki, each kids' meal comes with rice and salad, which kids can eat with a chopstick holder-helper. Clearly, this is a company that recognizes that their future and best customers are already sitting in the restaurant . . . they just may need a booster seat.
Most Kids Prefer Adult Food
If you think your younger guests have only one thing on their mind when eating in your restaurant— burgers, fries, chicken fingers and other fare typical of the "kids' meal"—think again. The results of a recent study by a research company that specializes in reading the minds of youthful customers suggest that kids' palates may be more mature than you expect.
According to the study, released by Y-Pulse last fall, the biggest factors influencing the choice of a restaurant for kids in grades 3 through 5 are good food, cited by 71 percent, and healthy food, cited by 56 percent. And the majority—60 percent—claimed that parental influence and peer pressure did not hold much sway in their preference for restaurants.
Most kids surveyed cited the local diner as their favorite restaurant (23 percent), followed by Mexican establishments and McDonald's (11 and 10 percent, respectively). The older kids were more likely to prefer the diners, and preference for the Golden Arches decreased with increasing age.
Kids in this group were most likely to order pizza (11 percent) or chicken (9 percent), followed by burgers (9 percent). Interestingly, the older the respondent, the less burgers were the top choice: 17.2 percent of third graders called it their favorite restaurant food; only 4.9 percent of fifth graders did. Pasta, on the other hand, grew in popularity with age: 1.7 percent loved it in third grade, but 9.2 percent did in fifth grade.
A few results of the study may make you rethink how you structure your kids' menu, if you have one. The vast majority, more than 3/4 of the children in this age group, said they choose their own meals instead of deferring to their parents' choices. And about two-thirds preferred the offerings on the adult menu to the kids' version.
When it comes to beverages, not surprisingly, soda was singled out as the favorite. But, perhaps reflecting parental guidance, slightly more than half of the group said they ordered bottled water every time they eat in a restaurant. Milk ran a close third after soda.
More than 350 children ranging in age from 8 to 11 in eight states participated in the survey by Y-Pulse, a youth foodservice research company based in Chicago. For more information on Y-Pulse, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 312-280-9061.
The Staff of Life: Panera Bread is committed to offering a healthful kids' menu with whole grain breads, organic cheeses, organic squeezable yogurts and organic beverages.
Winner: Fast Casual
Panera Bread has always excelled with quality ingredients, but its new kids' menu section offers an array of healthful food choices of which any parent would approve. All of its sandwiches feature a new whole-grain white bread, which is brilliant because many kids don't like the the darker whole-grain breads.
On top of that, its peanut butter and jelly sandwich features an all-natural peanut butter. Its grilled cheese sandwich and its kids' deli sandwich feature organic American cheese. Each sandwich comes with squeezable organic yogurt and a choice of organic milk, soy milk, reduced-fat chocolate milk or organic apple juice.
"Our kids' meals start with great bread, a soft texture that appeals to young taste buds and a white whole grain goodness that will please parents," explain John Taylor, director of product development at Panera.
"We know that children are some of Panera's biggest fans so we thought it was time to give them their very own menu choices," adds Ron Shaich, chairman and c.e.o. "We have devoted a lot of care and attention to sourcing fresh, wholesome ingredients to create delicious meals that both parents and kids will feel really good about."
On top of all that, Panera does a great job of promoting its kids' offering. The sandwich chain conducted a survey of "moms" and found that 56 percent said they are challenged to be creative with lunch-making, and 58 percent said they put little variety in their kids' lunchboxes day after day. On that note, all 900-plus Panera restaurants on June 21 planned to offer a free kids' meal with the purchase of any regularly priced menu item. The promotion is labeled "Today I'm taking mom to lunch at Panera Bread." It's a nice gesture on the heels of a nice, well-thought-out kids menu.
Family Fun: Chandler's has a variety of kid-related programs during holidays.
Winner: Upscale Restaurants
Located at the Yankee Candle Village in South Deerfield, the second-largest tourist attraction in Massachusetts, Chandler's best customers are often its youngest ones. And it goes out of its way to make sure they are treated very well. In addition to offering a menu with several healthful options, Chandler's is continually updating its kids' menu program to keep it fresh.
A new event recently added is Family Fun Night, which features a traditional and affordable ($12 for adults, $6 for kids) New England barbecue. The event takes place on the patio and features kids' karaoke, family bingo and a wiffle ball home run derby on the lawn.
Another newer event is the Fancy Nancy Luncheons, which allows mothers and daughters to share a "fancy" lunch. Guests are encouraged to dress fancy for the event, which features a visit by Mrs. Claus, who reads the books Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor and Girls Hold Up This World by Jada Pinkett-Smith.
A favorite kid activity, designed for budding young chefs, is held at the Candlewick Cafe, which is located within Yankee Candle Village and managed by Chandler's. Last summer, kids were invited to make their own pizza. They are given all the ingredients and guidance, and it's up to kids to decide what they make.
Holidays are always special at Chandler's, with numerous kids' activities built around special times of the year.
One such event is the Teddy Bear Tea, infor which kids are invited to bring their favorite Teddy Bear to a tea party with Mrs. Claus. In addition to fun sandwiches and tea, kids decorate mini-cookies for dessert.
Kid Friendly: Jekyll Island Club Hotel connects with kids through nature-themed programs.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel
Once a resort playground for millionaires, and then a retirement community, Jekyll Island is now a destination hot spot for family vacations. It has miles of sandy beaches, bicycle trails, a water park, a nature center, horseback riding, dolphin cruises, a fishing pier and a soccer complex. So, the owners of Jekyll Island Club Hotel, located on one of Georgia's barrier islands, can't just deliver an ordinary kids' menu.
The resort hired an illustrator to design a menu that delivers the usual games and puzzles, and also an amazing map of the island and all that it offers. At dinner, kids can color and play, but most spend a considerable time planning their vacation activities using the map. The menu booklet also serves as a placemat, which can be wiped down and taken home as a momento of their vacation.
If all that doesn't capture the attention of youngsters, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is currently under construction behind the hotel's property. Before or after dinner, kids will be able to learn all about the ancient sea creatures.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel also has a Club Juniors program that provides activities for kids 5-12 during summer days. Kids can go crabbing, take turtle walks, swim and more. The club occupies kids so their parents can have some time to themselves.
Grade A: Alexandria schools have made a big push to improve the healthful quality of school menus.
Alexandria City Public Schools
Alexandria City Public Schools is an urban, ethnically and culturally diverse district just outside Washington, DC. Enrollment includes about 10,000 students who attend 13 elementary, two middle, one ninth grade, and one high school. Eighty four languages are represented in the high school, and approximately 50 percent of all students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, although food and nutrition services is a self-sustaining entity within the district. No local funds are used to support the foodservice operation. Clearly, the district faces some real challenges.
Alexandria school menus provide nutrition tips and a fun activity for kids every month. Items with nuts, pork, whole grains and vegetarian items are noted on the menu with a symbol. Lunch menus offer at least five entree choices daily, with fresh chef's salads, yogurt, snack packs and two hot entrees. Sides include canned, frozen and dried fruits and veggies—at least 20-30 different ones each month. Small portions are available to encourage kids to try a food item.
The district has had success increasing its breakfast participation (3.4 percent) since last year. A lot of that success is due to marketing its Step It Up and Go Places with Breakfast program. It involves morning announcements about breakfast and activities children do around the world, and maps are erected with the featured country marked. School supplies are given away to all breakfast buyers.
Another marketing plan surrounded a promotion called Vote for School Lunch, which was conducted with the School Nutrition Association. Cafeterias were decorated with red, white and blue balloons, and Vote for School Lunch buttons were given to office staff and teachers. Posters with each candidate's name (particular food items) were put up around the school. After the most recent voting was completed, Pete Pizza was voted the most popular menu item.
Alexandria City Public Schools go well beyond the call of duty to encourage kids to get excited about eating nutritious meals.
Beyond The Menu: Among the best kids' menus are those that capture attention, like Pink Shell Resort's saucer menu and Silver Diner's paper car food holder.
Merit Award Winners