CHICAGO – Initiatives to improve healthfulness of restaurant meals along with changing population demographics will shape the restaurant industry in 2012 and beyond, according to a new report from Chicago-based NPD Group, a market research company.

Continuing pressure to improve the healthfulness of kids meals combined with increasing interest in better health and nutrition among mothers have led to children younger than age 13 to eat fruit, non-fried chicken, wraps and better-for-you cereal, according to NPD. Mothers are moving their children away from French fries, desserts and regular-size burgers.

In addition to the better-for-you trend in consumer dining habits, the rapid growth of the Hispanic and Asian population in the US will continue to drive demand for ethnically diverse foods in 2012, NPD said. Millenial and Boomer populations will also influence restaurant foods.

Other factors that will influence the restaurant industry in 2012 include:

  • Increased competition from retail. Supermarkets are making inroads in prepared foods while convenience stores capitalize on dashboard dining opportunities.
  • Work-related traffic and lunch visits will recover. Lower unemployment and increased consumer confidence are encouraging signs that the work-related lunch occasion is on the rebound in 2012.
  • Higher beef and chicken prices will affect restaurant offerings and menu prices. Look for restaurants to tout menu items that give them cost savings and shift away from high-cost beef and chicken dishes.
  • Social media will continue to stimulate trial. Social media will be key to enticing diners into restaurants. Discounts, loyalty and other programs delivered via social media platforms could benefit restaurants looking to convert trial customers into regulars.
  • Quick-service restaurants will continue to focus on beverages. Finding new ways to promote beverages will be a key strategy to build traffic and boost profits in 2012. Look for loyalty programs and promotions to build off-hour demand for specialty drinks. Also, restaurants will be exploring new and non-carbonated options and offerings that appeal to older diners.