Little Stomachs, Big Power
By Megan Pellegrini
The restaurant industry is appealing to children through menu choices, advertising and promotions.
Determined, yet finicky and often times sticky, these diners like to stick with the basics: chicken strips, chicken nuggets and chicken fingers. Though not yet 3 feet tall typically, they wield enormous power in the economy. The $537 billion restaurant industry, in particular, gears a large amount of its advertising, promotions and menu choices to meet the needs of children.
Today’s toddler is tomorrow’s customer, after all. And children these days have unprecedented power over where the family eats and what they are allowed to order. According to a 2005 study by WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based youth and family marketing firm, children’s influence on products purchased at fast food restaurants was 68 percent.
Indeed, fast food restaurants spend millions on advertising and promotions to children, who are more and more influenced by advertising and their friends. Fast food chains, however, are also trying to balance parents’ wishes for healthier foods with children’s desires for fun.
This summer alone, Burger King has introduced kid-friendly chicken fries and crown-shaped chicken nuggets for its kids’ meals, while offering three new Xbox games for $3.99 when a Value Meal is purchased. Wendy’s is launching its new Frosty Float with a Nintendo Wii giveaway—800 Wiis, 800 Wii games and 800 Wii point cards. Its Kids Meal choices now include turkey and ham sandwiches with mandarin oranges and low-fat yogurt with granola as sides. And McDonald’s saw a 7.4 percent increase in sales last month, partly due to its “Shrek the Third” Happy Meal promotion.
Sticking with the basics
According to WonderGroup president Dave Siegel, mothers obviously don’t want to waste their time taking their children to a restaurant they don’t like. Gen X moms, who manage 80 percent of household spending, not only guard their time and money, but want to see their children happy. Indeed, the most important influence a child has is his or her “negative influence,” telling mom and dad where he doesn’t want to eat.
Once at the restaurant, children will look for what is familiar and tastes good, and then appreciate fun, interesting shapes or sauces. “They do not like trying new things,” says Siegel. So, fast food and quick casual restaurants would be wise to include the classics on their menus: chicken nuggets, pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and hot dogs.
A lot of media attention has recently been placed on the revamped children’s menus at Walt Disney theme parks (which include carrots or grapes as alternatives to French fries, arroz con pollo and baked chicken leg in an Asian-style sauce) and Ritz-Carlton Hotels (chefs have more leeway with the menus), amongst other hotel restaurants. But Siegel suggests the new options are for older children, not little ones under 5 years old who are less adventurous.
It’s the toy, stupid
As every parent knows, children will ask to go to a fast food restaurant simply for the toy being offered in the kids’ meal. “Kids will take the toy over the food anytime,” says Siegel.
Restaurants are also marketing their products through huge advertising budgets, partnering with cool products and Web sites, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm. Currently, many chains’ Web sites contain games, birthday clubs and downloadable pages.
“Younger children want toys, while older children [5 to 10] want what’s cool,” says Tristano.
In the past year, he notes that children’s menus have also become more image oriented, reinforcing children’s ability to chose what they want for lunch or dinner. Besides offering a fun, cool image, restaurants also market to families and family occasions, such as the Olive Garden and Pizza Hut, says Tristano, which meets the needs of older children and adults.
Balancing fun with health
In the last several years, parents have demanded healthier options for children’s menus. Today, many fast food and quick casual restaurants offer more alternatives to French fries, such as apple slices, applesauce and carrot sticks, and low-fat milk instead of soda.
And restaurants such as KFC, Wendy’s and Arby’s are eliminating trans fats in their products, and McDonald’s is experimenting with ways to cut it out.
Meanwhile, Ruby Tuesday has had a “Smart Eating 4 Kids” menu for two years, and similar fare can be found at Friendly’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s and Red Lobster.
These moves come as the New York Board of Health voted to ban trans fats from being served in New York City restaurants, and Chicago and other states considers the idea.
According to Sheila Weiss, a registered dietician and director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, there has also been a push from restaurants for all-white nuggets that are lower in fat and calories, as well as reduced sodium and no trans fats in other proteins. “It’s important to know that changes are occurring,” she says. “We’ve come a long way in the last few years to be more in line with the dietary guidelines.”
She suggests that these new healthy options are resonating with consumers because they are still available on menus. Tristano agrees that restaurants are providing healthier alternatives, but notes that children will still ask for and eat what they want even, or especially, if it’s a fattening product.
Since 2004, McDonald’s Balanced Active Lifestyles initiative has been focused on helping customers better understand how to lead balanced, active lives through varied menu choices, physical activity and nutrition education. Besides the regular choices for Happy Meals — hamburgers, cheeseburgers and four-piece Chicken McNuggets — the Golden Arches also serve low-fat milk and Apple Dippers.
“Children, in particular, like their meals to be fun,” says Julie Pottenbaum, a spokesperson for Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s. “So since we know kids love to dip their food, we offer caramel dip with our Apple Dippers, and our milk jug packaging includes graphics of Ronald surfing on a wave of white [and chocolate] milk.”
McDonald’s provides nutritional information on its menu, packaging, on the back of tray liners, on its Web site and on the customer information line. “More than anything, there’s a need to educate and inform people about nutrition and the importance of balance between diet and physical activity,” she says. “In fact, a McDonald’s Happy Meal with four-piece Chicken McNuggets, low-fat milk and Apple Dippers provides less than one-third of the government’s recommendation for fat and calories for children.”
Chick-fil-A states that it is committed to growing children inside and out. According to Brenda Green, public relations spokesperson for Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, its “kids meals don’t contain anything that’s not healthy.” The chicken nuggets are made from whole breast meat, cooked in peanut oil (which is noted on Chick-fil-A’s menu and Web site for those with peanut allergens) and hand-breaded. Fruit cups can be substituted for French fries and milk and juice can be swapped for soda.
All of Chick-fil-A’s premiums (as the company calls toys) have an educational background. For four years, the chicken chain has sponsored PBS’ award-winning “Between the Lions” children’s show, and created a series of new children’s books featuring Between the Lions characters that are featured as Chick-fil-A Kid’s Meal premiums. Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation also supports college programs, scholarships, a camp, and a home for foster children, amongst other initiatives.
“Chick-fil-A engages in subtle marketing,” says Green. “Everything is packaged together in our stores, so no one message speaks louder than the others.”
Culver’s doesn’t actually target the children’s market, says Barbara Behling, director of public relations for Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based chain, but is certainly happy when families dine out at its stores. While its burgers haven’t changed in 22 years, Culver’s does offer all-beef hot dogs, applesauce instead of fries, upgrades for sides to salads or potatoes, and milk, of course, as it sits in the heart of America’s Dairyland.
“We pride ourselves on having a huge variety of menu items,” says Behling. “Items can be cooked to order. So if someone needs less sodium or more cheese for a protein diet, for example, that’s OK with our cooks.”
She notes that custard has six of the 10 vitamins and minerals that children are generally deficient in, but notes that too much of a good thing can be bad and parents should be realistic in balancing their families’ diets and activity levels.
For the last four years, Culver’s has encouraged children to live an active lifestyle by redeeming coupons from kids meals for objects such as soccer balls, footballs and camping lanterns. In addition, its interactive Web site has information on its foods’ allergens, calories and gluten content. Also Web browsers can build a meal and then calculate the number of Weight Watchers points it totals.
“The restaurant industry has done a good job educating consumers and is far ahead of other retail establishments,” notes Behling.
School lunches: Early arbiters of trends?
Rubbery hamburgers, soggy tater tots and an indistinguishable vegetable used to make up a standard school lunch. Now, children in some school districts are eating organic and non-genetically modified meats and locally grown fruits and vegetables in those perennially fluorescent cafeterias.
In the 1940s, under the National School Lunch Program, lunches were intended to be high calorie, starchy creations, because children were generally undernourished at that time. Today’s 31 million students don’t have that problem. Instead, school cafeterias are changing their cooking techniques and product selection to address the growing childhood obesity epidemic.
Federal legislation in the mid-1990s and 2001 updated the nutrition standards for school meals so they meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (that meals contain less than 30 percent fat and provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories) and supported the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, which helps school food service professionals deliver healthy food choices.
According to Eric Peterson, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association, school chefs are reaching dietary guidelines by using leaner meats, baking instead of frying chicken, cooking with trans-fat free oils, and using whole grains in breading. In fact, some schools are adding moisture and flavor to dry, low-fat ground beef, by putting “fat replacers” such as cranberries, cherries, prunes or blueberries in the meat.
“Parents and students are paying attention,” he says, to the calories and nutrition in school meals. “A lot of products from the food industry for schools are now at retail and in restaurants. We will see more kid menus at restaurants offering similar meals.”
At the end of this year or early next year, the USDA is due to come out with modifications to the National School Lunch Program so it meets the revised 2005 dietary guidelines.