They call it the spice of life, but a Technomic survey reveals teens and tweens are being underserved in variety when dining out.
Technomic conducted a survey of 8- to 17-year-olds, studying their behaviors toward dining out, trying new food items, types of restaurants they visit, and whether brands cater to their needs.
While 8- and 9-year-olds are more than happy to order off the kids’ menu, by the age of 10, excitement toward the kids’ menu significantly subsides, says Sara Monnette, director of consumer research at Technomic.
“We found the motivation and attitudes of teens and tweens differed significantly by age, and that implies a need to create more multi-tiered foodservice concepts or marketing approaches to these age groups,” Monnette says.
Julie Casey, a mother of two, launched MyKidsPlate.com in 2007 to inform parents of healthy, kid-friendly dining options in their neighborhoods. While Casey’s kids, at 5 and 7, are not yet tweens, she says their palates are already more diverse than the average restaurant acknowledges.
“[Today’s kid] is eating a lot more things not traditionally considered kids’ food than they were 10 years ago,” she says. “My kids love options. They love rice. They eat green beans and corn.”
But take a look at the kids’ menus of five casual dining chains–Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday, Chili’s, Red Robin, and Applebee’s.
Of the five restaurants, all of them offer a grilled cheese sandwich, macaroni and cheese, and some variation of chicken fingers on their menus. Four out of the five serve at least one type of burger.
Three have a grilled chicken dish, and two also make corn dogs and pizza for children.
Technomic reports that tweens quickly outgrow their picky eating stage as they become teenagers, emerging with a newfound willingness to eat not just pizza and hamburgers, but pasta, sandwiches, and salad as well.
“Part of it is, ‘I want to be able to eat more like older kids and adults than younger kids,’” Monette says. “They [10- and 11-year-olds] still felt like the food items weren’t meeting their needs on the menus.”
Since families are more likely to choose restaurants where they know their kids will eat the food, Monnette suggests restaurants take a look at their menu operations and offerings.
“Give kids a little more credit in what they’re willing to try and what they want to eat,” she says.
Casey–a self-proclaimed child of the Hamburger Helper generation, where every meal was a burger or hot dog with fries–says part of the parent’s role is to expose kids to other food.
“My kids eat sushi, and they love edamame as a snack,” she says.
One way restaurants can appease the flourishing appetites of growing children is to offer smaller portions from the adult menu.
The Ruby Tuesday kids’ menu, in addition to the staples, gives children the option to help themselves to the salad bar or order fried shrimp, grilled chicken, or chop steak–food an adult generally consumes, but in a child-size portion.
Food is not the sole enticer for teens and tweens, though. Market-savvy brands, those that talk to and respond to consumers’ needs, have a leg up with this age group, Monnette says.
“Young consumers today, they’re more tech-savvy, they engage with brands rather than being spoken to or advertised or marketed to,” she says.
“It’s more about taking feedback from what these young people want and making evident that they’re being listened to and really developing programs and menu items that fit what they want.”
To extrapolate teens’ and tweens’ dining desires, Technomic examined their quick-serve preferences as well.
Monnette says Panera and Starbucks do well with teens in particular, because of the upscale feeling and the “hang out” design.
Chipotle also scored well with them, because of its social consciousness, which starts to strike a chord with teens as they learn of social and environmental responsibility.
“Kids today are a lot more sophisticated than they were, even, 10 years ago,” Monnette says. “So the more that restaurants can do to appeal to a more sophisticated customer, the better position they’ll be in to attract families.”
By Sonya Chudgar