Kids taking a different approach to restaurant meals

by Bryan Salvage
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CHICAGO — Although kids’ meals with toys and kids’ menus continue to be the most popular options for children younger than 13, both offerings have experienced sharp declines, according to the NPD Group Inc.

For the year ending December 2008, orders for kid’s meals among kids under 13 including a toy were down 11%, and orders from kids menus were down 4%, compared to combo meals down 2% and 99-cent value menu up 9%, according to NPD’s Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends, which tracks consumer usage of commercial foodservice.

"Just as adults have moved to greater use of deals and value menus, there continues to be a shift in the way kids are ordering at restaurants or, in many cases, how their parents are ordering for them," says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. "What has gained in popularity is the use of value menus for kids’ meals and snacks."

Fewer kids are eating out, which is also contributing to the decline in the number of kids’ meals with toys and kids menu items ordered. Traffic for parties with kids declined 5% in the quarter ending February 2009, compared to same quarter last year, after more than three years of positive growth. The average size of the party when kids are present is more than twice as large as for adult-only parties, driving the cost almost $8 higher than for the typically smaller adult-only occasions.

Both quick-service restaurants and full-service restaurants experienced traffic losses. In both cases, losses were heaviest with kids less than six years of age.

When children under 12 visit restaurants, pizza is the most popular fast food, according to NPD C.R.E.S.T. data. Fries and chicken nuggets are also popular, but are beginning to be less popular, research indicates. Up-and-coming menu items include hamburgers, tacos and pasta for older kids, with fruit and ice cream gaining in popularity for younger kids. While pizza dominates for kids at supper in a quick-service restaurant, pasta takes over that spot at full-service restaurants.

"Kids’ tastes and preferences are changing," Ms. Riggs says. "There is more to the shift away from kids’ meals and menus than the economy and saving money. Kids today want more choices and sophisticated fare."

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