In a recent NY Times article by Susan Domus, Looking Past the Children's Menu, New York restaurateur Nicola Marzovilla asserts his belief that kids have the same right to couture cuisine as their parents - and that children's menus, with their cheaper, less interesting fare should be banished.
Marzovilla's rant is less about curmudgeonry and more about culture. If we acknowledge that food is more than just fuel, but rather symbolic - sustenance for the soul - than we have to agree with him. Steering kids towards chicken fingers, hamburgers and grilled cheese (regardless of the genre of food featured at the restaurant), the logic would go, not only deprives them of exploring taste, but also takes away their chance to experience different cultures. And for kids, tweens and teens today, it seems that knowing how to handle a menu is a necessary skill. (54% of elementary school aged kids buy lunch at school.)
Furthermore, this article made us ask: should we be catering (no pun intended) to our kids' in-progress taste buds, or should we be pushing them towards more sophisticated fare?
Many parents we talk to extol the virtues of having kids try new things, but our YouthBeat survey results show that kids continue to eat the basics over more complicated foods. While we've heard more than one city kid request a Dragon Roll or choose a spot that features Chicken Tikka Masala over chicken nuggets, only 1% of kids, 2% of tweens and 2% of teens in our survey reported eating sushi in the previous day. Compare this to 51% of kids (1st through 5th graders) eating cereal, 27% eating white bread and 21% eating apple sauce and it's clear that kids across the country aren't quite keeping up with their city counterparts.
But as many parents know, and most marketers have found, sometimes it's just easier to give kids what they want. In fact, some of the biggest brands in the food category have built their business on the notion that kids, tweens and teens can and should have food that they want - food that's developed with their needs in mind. Nutritionists might argue that this recipe could lead to disaster, but we can also point to categories in which healthy foods became kid staples with a little help from licensed characters and from simplifying adult styles (think classic example, yogurt to GoGurt). And more and more restaurants are making moms and dads happy by taking into account the needs of the whole family. Credit McDonald's with kick-starting this trend by offering mom a bonus salad for taking the troupe to PlayPlace.
And more restaurants (even in foodie feeding grounds like Brooklyn!) are taking a turn towards getting the littlest diners to lick their lips. And we think this is smart business - more and more parents report that they go out to eat because it's "fun for the whole family" (41% of parents of elementary school kids, and the number one reason, according to YouthBeat data), not to teach a lesson. Today's parents are likely to tote their toddlers along to adult restaurants rather than leaving them at home with take-out and a sitter. Shouldn't we make the experience easier for them, and more in line with how today's togetherness-focused families really dine?
We think the truth and the future probably lie somewhere in the middle. Getting kids to test exotic foods can be an uphill climb - and a battle that parents will probably resist. At the same time, challenging kids (and marketers!) to take a chance on new tastes might make meals a bit more interesting for kids, tweens and teens, and might make the job of food innovators and menu maestros a bit more fun! And perhaps families will find ways to bond over shared food as much as shared interests. Or in the least, food won't stand in the way of families dining the way they want to: less fine dining and more just feeling fine.