While the market has lagged with respect to breakfast menu-item launches, in 2006, midscale restaurants stepped up to the plate in the children’s menu category, posting a 41-percent increase in the number of new items introduced for children — good news for a restaurant segment that depends on family dining, says Chicago-based Mintel International Group Ltd.

Family restaurants cater to value-conscious families — where bringing the kids along is a key component of sales. According to Mintel’s custom research, 69 percent of respondents with children who dine at family/midscale restaurants said they brought their children to a family/midscale restaurant in the past month, and 68 percent said they usually bring their children with them when they go out to dinner.

When asked to rate family/midscale dining attributes (with 5 meaning “very important” and 1 meaning “not at all important”), respondent parents gave these statements the following ratings:

• My kids would enjoy it (4.3)

• It has a variety of menu options just for kids (3.9)

• It has menu options for kids that I think are healthy (3.9)

The likelihood of having brought children to a family restaurant, the normalcy with which they do so, and the importance with which they view the kids’ dining experience, confirm the need for the industry to closely monitor family dining needs, says Mintel. Good examples of family dining innovation, according to Mintel, include Friendly’s, which introduced an upgraded menu in July 2006, and saw a 9.1 percent increase in sales (the chain garnered opinions from 500 children, with those opinions resulting in a triangle-shaped menu featuring bright colors); and Shari’s, which introduced kid-focused initiatives and health-sized its kid’s menu in 2005, and saw a 200 percent increase in add-on sales and a 13 percent increase in kid’s menu sales.

Meanwhile, Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based franchisor Culver’s created its Frozen Custard and Butter-Burgers Kid’s Meals as a proactive effort to encourage children to get active and make healthy choices when it comes to proper nutrition. For example, applesauce, side salad or mashed potatoes can be ordered instead of fries, and milk is available instead of soda. With every Culver’s Kid’s Meal, children receive two tokens. One can be used for a free scoop of custard after dinner, or it can be saved along with the second token for such premiums as a kickball or a soccer ball. “We know that an active lifestyle leads to a healthier lifestyle, and we want to help play a role in that,” says Chris Contino, Culver’s vice president of marketing. “At Culver’s, we strive to provide guests with the opportunity to enjoy a balanced diet with foods that taste great. We also know it’s important to provide the information necessary so guests can make informed healthy choices.”

On the federal side of things ...

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) 2007 forum on food marketing found children’s health advocates questioning the motives of the fast-food industry. Washington legislatures continue efforts to nip childhood obesity in the bud without government regulation. That was the lesson taken away from last year’s FTC and Department of Health and Human Services hearings.

Officials from both departments met with 11 major food companies, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, to shine a spotlight on the need for more responsible food marketing toward youth. The public hearing was a follow up to a 2006 FTC report that found “among many factors, food and beverage marketing influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption at least in the short term, and is a likely contributor to less healthful diets, and may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes and risks among children and youth.”

McDonald’s Corp., which was the only quick-service restaurant at the hearing, announced 100 percent of its advertising primarily directed to children under 12 would further the goal of healthy dietary choices.

“We pride ourselves on being responsible marketers,” said Danya Proud, a spokesperson for McDonald’s. “We have to do our due diligence in making sure that we are reaching moms and parents and that they are in a position to make educated choices for their children.”

Culver's Kid's Meals

Culver’s is committed to active lifestyles. The Kid’s Meals include:
Grilled Cheese
Hot Dogs
Chicken Tenders

Culver’s offers a kid’s meal with choices. Apple sauce, side salad or mashed potatoes can be substituted for fries. Milk can be substituted for soda. Chicken tenders or a ButterBurger are lower-calorie options to a ButterBurger Cheese.

All Kid’s Meals are served with a choice of side and drink and an optional scoop of frozen custard for dessert.

All Kid’s Meals come with two tokens — one to redeem for custard if the parent permits and one to collect and redeem for active “Team Scoopie” gear such as a football, basketball, soccer ball, kickball, etc. Kids can choose to keep both tokens to use towards obtaining Scoopie gear.

Culver’s proudly serves great-tasting choices to help its customers enjoy a balanced lifestyle.

Food is cooked to order, therefore, guests can customize their selection to match special dietary needs.

Nutritional information is available in all Culver’s restaurants plus its interactive Web site allows guests to build a meal/treat to fit their lifestyle.