Kids used to walk into a restaurant and be happy with chicken nuggets, fries and a flimsy dinosaur toy.
After beefing up restaurant sales for decades, a new report shows sales of kids meals are on the wane with children no longer craving the pint-sized servings with toys as they once did.
Better meal deals, economic factors, fewer children’s birthday parties at restaurants and a big push toward more healthful options led to a 6 percent decline in orders of kids’ meals with a toy in 2011, compared to 2010, according to the report from NPD Group.
“Kids are getting about one-third of their calories from eating out,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Studies show the more often they eat out, the more likely they are to be obese. Children’s menus have become synonymous with junk food and it should be just the opposite.”
But, according to industry experts, two other trends are driving the changes in children’s menus: Children seem to have more sophisticated palates today, and there’s a desire to seem more mature at a younger age. Kids who are accustomed to playing Xbox and other game systems at younger and younger ages don’t want kids’ meal toys.
With more than 1.2 billion children’s meals sold annually, these special menu items aren’t going away soon. But kids’ meals are growing up.
Big national chains, including Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobster and Kansas City-based Applebee’s, along with small, locally owned restaurants like Story in Prairie Village, are adapting to the changing appetites of younger patrons. Kids can order apples instead of fries, and freshly made pasta and English peas rather than fried chicken tenders and hot dogs. And older children — tweens and teens — are getting their own transitional menu items to match their new maturity.
Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry researcher at NPD Group, said children and their parents are responding to the promotions and packaging for healthful choices. They are eating fewer fries, carbonated drinks and desserts, and more fruit, smoothies and non-fried chicken.
A year ago, for example, Jack in the Box stopped putting toys in children’s meals and added options like Chiquita Apple Bites with caramel in its Kid’s Combo Meals.
“They are more appealing to a parent than packaging a toy with lower quality,” said Brian Luscomb, spokesman for Jack in the Box.
Of course, when you think of children’s meals and toys, the McDonald’s Happy Meal is the category king. Introduced in 1979, Happy Meals account for about 10 percent of McDonald’s sales. However, sales of Happy Meals were flat to slightly down in the first quarter of this year, said Neil Getzlow, a spokesman for the chain.
McDonald’s said it was showing its commitment to children’s well-being by trimming the calorie count of its Happy Meal. It added apple slices and “kid-size” fries in the Kansas City market last November.
“Families are eating differently than they used to when they go out,” McDonald’s said in a statement.
Consider the Wollard family. Until this month, mom and dad would routinely order four Happy Meals with the toys for their children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 8. They are Happy Meal’s target market.
But eldest child Christian Wollard recently announced he was ready for a new milestone — his first Big Mac. Well, not an entire Big Mac, since his mother cut it in two so he could share it with his sister, Kate, 7.
“I’m getting older and I don’t want to play with toys anymore,” said Christian, who spends time on Nintendo and Xbox at home. “The Big Macs look so good and my 10-year-old cousin eats them. I follow what he does because he’s so cool.”
Purchases of children’s meals with toys also are often driven by movie promotions like Toy Story and The Lion King.
“But there hasn’t been any big hit movie or tie-in to boost excitement,” Riggs said.
Riggs said children want to seem more mature at an ever younger age, ordering what their older siblings or parents are ordering.
Story, an upscale restaurant in Prairie Village, offers a children’s menu with such items as spaghetti and meatballs, gnocchi, whitefish fillet, English peas and parmesan risotto — all made from scratch with fresh ingredients.
“My children like the familiar but they will try stuff. And they like real parmesan instead of the stuff in the green tube,” said chef and co-owner Carl Thorne-Thomsen. “I don’t want them to eat additive-filled things, but simple things they can like forever.”
Over a recent lunch hour, his 4-year-old daughter, Ella, took some big bites of English peas that her brother and sister helped shell. According to Ella’s mother, Susan Thorne-Thomsen, she’s a big fan of fruits and vegetables.
“Healthful children’s menus” is one of the top menu trends in the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2012” survey of 1,800 professional chefs, including offering more whole grain items for children.
“Healthful kids menus items have been growing in popularity. Consumers are going in and demanding more healthful items and restaurants are providing them,” said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association in Washington.
More than 100 restaurant brands representing more than 25,000 restaurants nationwide — chains and mom-and-pops — also are now participating in the association’s “Kids LiveWell” initiative, which was launched in July 2011 with 19 brands.
Applebee’s, Chick-fil-A, IHOP, Outback Steakhouse and other restaurants are showcasing their healthful choices and parents are finding a growing selection of healthful children’s menu options like fruit and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and dairy products.
For example, Applebee’s offers a new “Kids LiveWell-endorsed entrée” — a grilled chicken sandwich with steamed broccoli and 1-percent milk or apple juice. Other options include orange juice, a side of applesauce or mac-and-cheese. It is looking at expanding the offerings.
Last fall, Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, committed to reducing calories and sodium and increasing choices on its children’s menu as part of the Partnership for a Healthier America.
Darden also is set to make the healthful choice the easier choice, in a new initiative being rolled out at its more than 1,800 locations through late July. So a children’s order of broiled fish at Red Lobster will automatically come with fresh fruit and 1-percent milk. At LongHorn Steakhouse the Kid’s Sirloin will be served with broccoli, fresh fruit and 1-percent milk.
Young diners wanting such items as soda and fries will have to request the substitutions.