Junior Appetites

Restaurants are catering to an underserved segment of youngsters with more grown-up food and greater variety for all

No one’s sure when it happened, when that inescapable trifecta of deep-fried chicken tenders, gloppy mac ‘n’ cheese and gooey pizza set up camp on kids’ menus and became standard fare.

But now, they’re getting elbowed on the menu by some competition—options for older kids, specifically tweens, ages eight to 12. Foodservice is discovering what fashion retailers have known for several years—they’re untapped and have purchasing power.

“By age eight, kids start asking to order from the adult menu,” says Julie Casey, founder of MyKidsPlate.com, a site that analyzes kid-friendly dining.

As parents heed warnings about the dangers of high-fat, low-nutrient diets, operators are responding with kids’ menus that offer greater variety, healthier choices and better quality. Menus espousing “cleaner” dishes—those featuring local, sustainable and organic ingredients—are also becoming more prevalent.

"Give kids side dish options with fruit and vegetables: don’t treat them like 2-year-olds."

—Suzy Badaracco, trends forecaster and president of Culinary Tides

According to Technomic, a company that provides consumer insight on the food industry, 75 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds surveyed last year said they want more choices. A similar percentage wished restaurants would create a separate older kids menu.

That could make for happier parents who often balk at paying adult entrée prices for a child. To avoid losing family business, some full-service restaurants are introducing more variety and adding portion sizes that fall between those traditionally offered for kids and adults.

Texas Roadhouse, for example, provides middle-of-the-road choices for the nine- to 12-year-old set: Ranger Meals. “Our best-selling options for kids under nine are Jr. Chicken Tenders, Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Lil’Dillo Sirloin Bites,” says Travis Doster, spokesman for the Louisville, Ky.-based chain. “But with the Ranger Meals for kids nine and up, the Chicken Critters (same dish, larger size) are last on the list, and the 6-ounce steak, which is the same served on the adult menu, is the number one option.”


Among the inaugural group to connect with the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, 128-unit Joe’s Crab Shack worked with registered dieticians to revamp the kids’ menu. Lean proteins, vegetables, grains, fruits   and low-fat dairy, are now highlighted, striking a balance between the common (chicken tenders, mac ‘n’ cheese) and unusual (kid-friendly portions of seafood, sausage and corn on the cob).

“Parents love that we provide options—like snow crab—that are outside of what is traditionally expected,” says Robin Ahearn, chief marketing officer of Ignite Restaurant Group, the corporate entity of Houston-based Joe’s Crab Shack.  “Kids are excited to order an item that is the same as what they see their parents order, only ‘kid-sized.’ Plus, there’s the fun factor: cracking crabs is the perfect excuse to play with your food.”

In Los Angeles, Chef Lee Gross of Chaya Restaurant Group’s M Cafe, a contemporary macrobiotic chain, started a children’s menu last year with adapted versions of adult favorites—such as the Mini-Macro burger and the Kids Teriyaki Bento with teriyaki tofu or salmon, heirloom brown rice, steamed vegetables and ginger-carrot dressing. The best sellers for adults “are now our best sellers for kids, too,” says Gross.


Chevy’s Fresh Mex—another participant in the NRA’s Kids LiveWell—rolled out a revamped menu last year after working with panels of parents and kids ages 12 and under. The result? “A blend of good-for-you and fun,” says Brian Wright, president of the Cypress, Calif.-based company.

One fruit of their labor: Chevy’s Build-Your-Own Taco, which lets kids craft their own creation from ramekins of cheese, chicken or beef. Other new items include a Chicken Bowl (with rice and choice of mesquite-grilled or salsa chicken), chicken or steak fajitas, and a Fresh Mex pizza. Meals come with healthier sides, including grilled or raw vegetables, fruit and applesauce.

The kid’s menu platings and presentations have also been revised, and in many cases, the portions of healthy sides increased.

After conferring with the NRA initiative to breathe a big dose of healthy into kids’ menus, Chicago chain Nookies launched a 12-item all-day kids’ menu that features whole grains and fruit as its default side dishes, gluten-free options and plenty of vegetables.

Mini multigrain pancakes replaced the chocolate chip variety topped with whipped cream, and a side of fresh fruit pushed aside chicken-sausage stacks. The new Little Gobbler half-sandwich features naturally-raised, free-range turkey on multigrain bread with green leaf lettuce, cranberry aioli and a side of fresh fruit.

Even fine-dining and trendy neighborhood spots are paying more attention to kids. At her eponymous restaurant in Denver, Chef Kelly Liken serves kids a mini three-course menu to match the adults’ fixed price offering.

“If kids are here for dinner, it’s a special thing,” Liken says. “Their meal should be delicious, fun, healthy and creative, just like their parents." A menu may include soup or crudités with dipping sauces; organic chicken potpie, spaghetti and meatballs, or a filet with hand-cut French fries; and fruit or a housemade ice cream sandwich for dessert.


While more kids—particularly tweens—are ordering healthy options, most restaurants are reluctant to completely step away from the old standards. Chicken fingers, mac ‘n’ cheese and pizza still rule the sales roost.

However, some operators, like the 330-unit Jason’s Deli, believe they need to take the lead. “We have an 60-item salad bar that we offer as a $3.99 all-you-can-eat option for kids,” says Pat Herring, director of research and development for the Beaumont, Texas, concept. “We’re seeing more and more children up there, which I’m really excited about.”

Taking things a bit further, Delaware-based Iron Hill Brewery boasts a 17-entrée kids’ menu with a separate gluten-free section. “We do not look at kids’ meal items as a profit center,” says Kevin Davies, director of culinary operations. 

If kids are happy, he reasons, their parents will be, too, and the restaurant’s bottom line benefits.

“The dance won’t change unless the steps change,” says Suzy Badaracco, trends forecaster and president of Portland, Ore.-based Culinary Tides. “We’re in that awkward phase where some people are trying the new steps, but others are still dancing the old dance.”

Monica Kass Rogers is a blogger at lostrecipesfound.com, Chicago-based writer and mom of kids ages 9 to 24.


The country’s 12 largest quick-service restaurants offer a combined 3,039 kid’s meal combinations.* Of those, only 12 met USDA nutrition criteria for preschoolers; 15made the grade for older children.

In menu items purchased by children and teens, at least 30 percent of the calories came from sugar and saturated fat.

*Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.


Create fresh, low-fat sauces and dips for dunk-friendly vegetables, fruits and lean proteins.

Kids like finger foods that are easy to grasp. Go beyond chicken nuggets to vegetable or fish croquettes, grilled produce and foods safely skewered on sugar cane, straws or herb stems.

Think interactivity. Explore build-your-own options or items that invite playful eating.