Kids’ meal orders declineKids used to walk into a restaurant and be happy with chicken nuggets, fries, and a flimsy dinosaur toy.
By: Joyce Smith , McClatchy Newspapers
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kids used to walk into a restaurant and be happy with chicken nuggets, fries, and a flimsy dinosaur toy.
After beefing up restaurant sales for decades, a new report shows sales of kids meals are on the wane, with children no longer craving the pint-sized servings with toys as they once did.
Better meal deals, economic factors, fewer children’s birthday parties at restaurants and a big push toward more healthful options led to a 6 percent decline in orders of kids’ meals with a toy in 2011, compared to 2010, according to the report from NPD Group.
But, according to industry experts, two other trends are driving the changes in children’s menus: Children seem to have more sophisticated palates today, and there’s a desire to seem more mature at a younger age. Kids who are accustomed to playing Xbox and other game systems at younger and younger ages don’t want kids’ meal toys.
With more than 1.2 billion children’s meals sold annually, these special menu items aren’t going away soon. But kids’ meals are growing up.
Big national chains, including Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobster and Applebee’s, along with small, locally owned restaurants like Story in Prairie Village, Kan., are adapting to the changing appetites of younger patrons. Kids can order apples instead of fries, and freshly made pasta and English peas rather than fried chicken tenders and hot dogs. And older children — tweens and teens — are getting their own transitional menu items to match their new maturity.
Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry researcher at NPD Group, said children and their parents are responding to the promotions and packaging for healthful choices. They are eating fewer fries, carbonated drinks and desserts, and more fruit, smoothies and nonfried chicken.
A year ago, for example, Jack in the Box stopped putting toys in children’s meals and added options like Chiquita Apple Bites with caramel in its Kid’s Combo Meals.
“They are more appealing to a parent than packaging a toy with lower quality,” said Brian Luscomb, spokesman for Jack in the Box.
Of course, when you think of children’s meals and toys, the McDonald’s Happy Meal is the category king. Introduced in 1979, Happy Meals account for about 10 percent of McDonald’s sales. But sales of Happy Meals were flat to slightly down in the first quarter of this year, said Neil Getzlow, a spokesman for the chain.
McDonald’s said it was showing its commitment to children’s well-being by trimming the calorie count of its Happy Meal. It added apple slices and “kid-size” fries in the Kansas City market last November.
“Families are eating differently than they used to when they go out,” McDonald’s said in a statement. “They may order a Happy Meal because kids love the specialness of their own meal, or they may share Chicken McNuggets, fries and then get their own drinks.”
Consider the Wollard family. Until this month, mom and dad would routinely order four Happy Meals with the toys for their children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 8. They are Happy Meal’s target market.
But eldest child Christian recently announced he was ready for a new milestone — his first Big Mac. Well, not an entire Big Mac, since his mother cut it in two so he could share it with his sister, Kate, 7.
“I’m getting older and I don’t want to play with toys anymore,” said Christian, who spends time on Nintendo and Xbox at home. “The Big Macs look so good, and my 10-year-old cousin eats them. I follow what he does because he’s so cool.”
Purchases of children’s meals with toys also are often driven by movie promotions like “Toy Story” and “The Lion King.”
“But there hasn’t been any big hit movie or tie-in to boost excitement,” Riggs said.
Still, 4-year-old Elijah Gonzalez was pretty excited about his Happy Meal toy during a recent lunch at a Kansas City, Mo., McDonald’s. Before touching his food, he was ripping off the plastic wrapper on his figurine of Melman the Giraffe from “Madagascar 3.”
But favoring the healthful choices, big sister Lily Gonzalez, 10, was hungry for her heartier Mighty Kids Meal, an “in-be-tween” menu item, introduced by McDonald’s in 2001. Mighty Kids Meals include six Chicken McNuggets or a McDouble burger, small fries and apple slices, along with fat-free chocolate milk, low-fat white milk or juice.
Riggs said children want to seem more mature at an ever-younger age, ordering what their older siblings or parents are ordering.