For an understanding of what a kid will eat, just watch. What plays in the school cafeteria likely will work in the drive-thru. And what kids pick up from the restaurant food counter can guide schools toward more popular food offerings.
Research by several industry insiders reveals that kids especially respond to hand-held items, smaller portions of “adult food”, interesting and bold flavors, fresh and customizable offerings, and enticing packaging. The older they get, kids also increasingly respond to healthful items. So salads are in.
“Yes, they are kids, but they don’t like being treated like kids. They like the same characteristics in food that adults do—fast and made to order,” says Sharon Olson, a partner with Y-Pulse LLC in Chicago, which specializes in studying kids’ eating habits away from home. According to Y-Pulse research, children ages 8 to 11 favor adult menus over children’s menus, “although they claim to like the food choices on the kids’ menu as well as the adults’ menu,” Olson adds.
In a Y-Pulse focus group, kids were asked what motivates their food choices. Top responses were: great taste; fun packaging; quick-serve restaurant or local restaurant branding; convenient and “made for me;” and quality defined as “tastes good” and “tastes fresh.”
Fresh & Customizable
The students in the 41 schools that make up the Frisco Independent School District in Frisco, Texas, want to see food prepared fresh before their eyes, “like having a sub sandwich made in front of them. It goes with the idea of fresh, and fresh is perceived as healthy,” says Debera Tredennick, director of the child nutrition programs. That desire for fresh and customizable led the district last year to introduce in one of its four high schools its first stir-fry station where kids choose some of their own ingredients. Next in her sights might be customized burritos.
In its quick-serve foodcourt operations, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, has made individual choice a part of the dining plan, says Ed Wronski, director of product development. After selecting an entrée, kids can choose two items from the “sides” menu, which includes grapes (the No. 1 choice), apples, baby carrots, and unsweetened applesauce.
Besides customization and choice, quality also is important, and younger kids equate quick-service restaurants with quality. As they get older, casual-dining and independent neighborhood restaurants conjure images of quality, Olson says.
At school, students run away from anything that smacks of cafeteria food, says Ruben Pena, assistant administrator for operations for the Brownsville Independent School District’s food and nutrition services in Brownsville, Texas. “Anything that seems to have a noninstitutional setting or feel to it, they will absolutely embrace.”
Branding and foods packaged to look branded like quick-serve packaging helps school lunches sell, Pena says. Last year the school district began offering some packaged, self-service items and realized a 5 percent to 8 percent increase in school-lunch participation at the high school level.
This year, Brownsville began a partnership program with Tyson Foods Inc., featuring four branded food stations in two of its five high schools. Tyson Sunset Strips serves chicken sandwiches, nuggets, and tenders. Ancho Grill features Mexican favorites like tacos and burritos. Bonichi Italian Eatery offers lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, and calzones; while Crustanos Sandwich Crafters offers subs, sandwiches, and salads. Each station has its own upbeat décor, signs, and packaging. “I’m looking for a 10 to 15 percent increase in school lunch participation,” Pena says.