Long treated as the stepchild of the menu board, kids' meals are getting a fresh look as quick-service restaurant chains pay more attention to nutrition in the food they offer their youngest customers.
Instead of just a separate kid's menu, Panera Bread is announcing Wednesday that it will offer almost every one of its items in a smaller size for children. The move follows McDonald's plan, disclosed last week, to replace regular apple juice with an organic, less sugary version in Happy Meals in November.
Panera, with its focus on health, portrays its smaller-size move as encouraging parents and their kids to move away from greasy, calorie-laden items.
"For too long, restaurants in America have served menus full of nutritionally empty chicken nuggets, pizza and fries, paired with sugary drinks and cheap toys," said Panera CEO Ron Shaich in a statement.
Chains have been paying more attention to nutrition and calorie counts since a measure was proposed in New York City in 2015 to require fast-food meals aimed at kids to be healthier and come in at less than 500 calories total.
While the "Healthy Happy Meals" bill never passed, it drew nationwide attention. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine analyzing food ordered for 422 kids -- average age: 7 -- at three popular burger chains found that meals averaged 600 calories.
Kids' meals aren't big sales drivers for restaurants by themselves. Other than McDonald's, which promotes its Happy Meals, kids' items amount to only about 1% to 2% of sales, according to Bob Goldin, a partner at the food industry consulting firm Pentallect.
Some chains, like Domino's and Little Caesars, don't have kids' menus. Taco Bell jettisoned its version in 2013 after 18 years as it shifted its focus to Millennials. But children often hold outsize influence when it comes to picking where their parents take the family to dinner, so the popularity of the kids' meals can become a factor.
"If you don’t offer something relevant to a family with kids, generally, you won't get that family with kids inside that restaurant," said Bob Derrington, senior research analyst at the Telsey Advisory Group.
The number of orders for kids' meals with toys bounced between 790 million and 800 million between 2014 and 2016, then spiked to 865 million in 2017 due to a big McDonald's advertising push, according to the research company NPD Group.
Industry consultants say Panera is on the right track.
"Don’t call it a kids' menu, but offer a smaller size of that same menu item that’s on the regular menu or the grown-up menu," advised Bonnie Riggs, the firm's restaurant industry analyst. "Kids today are much more inclined to try new things than kids were 10 years ago. They're much more open to unique flavors and different foods."
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