Do you want children to eat their dinner? If so, fill it with fat and sugar and serve it up with a shiny new toy! That, at least, used to be the thinking behind many restaurants that offered customers kids' menus. At one time, no restaurant mini-plate of chicken nuggets designed for smaller appetites was complete without an easily breakable plastic knick-knack to accompany it. Those times, it seems, are now coming to an end.
The US market research group NPD announced last month that restaurant meals with toys are on the way out, while sales of children's menus have dropped by 300,000 covers (customers) since 2005. According to the NPD Restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, this has happened because children are now as hungry for novelty as their parents.
"Children, especially those over six, don't even want to order from a kids' menu anymore. Their palates are more sophisticated and, just like adults, they want to try new things. It's also possible that mums are having an influence. From our research across the industry, we see that children are ordering fewer French fries, cheeseburgers, nuggets and fried chicken, and more fruit, mini-burgers, chicken wraps and fruit smoothies."
So does this mean children are rejecting the French fries and free Buzz Lightyears of former days and demanding foie gras instead? Not necessarily, but health concerns and new ideas about children's tastes are arguably edging out traditional junk foods favoured by kids. This is partly because parents are worried about the unhealthiness of such meals, which are often packed with sugar, salt and fat to satisfy children's supposed cravings. The children's food expert Annabelle Karmel, who is currently developing healthy children's meals with a regional airline, points out that free gifts are often synonymous with poor quality.
"Very often, when kids are given toys at restaurants, it's also an unhealthy meal that comes with it. Parents are getting very wary of being manipulated by free gifts - it's not as though child obesity and diabetes are exclusively American problems. The UAE actually has one of the worst rates of child diabetes in the world."
Children are also making bolder choices of their own accord. In today's globalised society, worldly wise children are exposed to a wider range of foods early on, and may be less hung up about new tastes than the generation before. While taking my first bite of sushi at age 18 took some bravery, for example, my six-year-old nephew guzzles the stuff without even considering himself adventurous. Karmel, however, insists that adventurousness has always been a part of children's appetites.
"I'm not sure children's appetites are necessarily becoming more sophisticated, it's more that us adults are realising that kids are more open-minded than we thought. When I first started trying out new foods with children [for her 1991 book the NewComplete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner], I was surprised to find that children's palates are actually quite sophisticated and they don't respond well to bland foods. I found that by adding garlic, herbs or cheese - anything but extra salt - to foods such as mashed potatoes, I could make children enjoy them much more.
"More recently in my work with food retailers, I've found children to be very open. At [the UK department store chain] BHS, we've been selling kids' portions of chicken tikka masala, as well as healthier versions of popular foods such as chicken nuggets, while the oriental bento boxes I developed with Mauritius's [Atlantis-owned] One & Only resort also proved hugely popular with children."
While this new openness may sound great, any parent whose child has thrown a dinner-table tantrum may take it with an unhealthily large pinch of salt. Open or not, children are still headstrong. So how can restaurateurs cater to these evermore sophisticated customers? Bonnie Riggs is clear as to the right direction:
"Children need more choices, downsized portions and healthy alternatives."