We think the rise in millennial parents will lead to healthier restaurant choices for kids in 2020. Here's why.

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
January 13, 2020
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This is part three of a 10-part series defining the top food & health trends of 2020.

Millennials are credited for shaking up the fast-casual restaurant industry a few years ago and setting new standards for healthy dining out. It was their purchasing habits and demand for transparency that pushed many major chain operators to reassess their ingredient and sourcing choices in order to appease that ever-growing segment of the population. This was a great thing for all consumers, since prior to this any prioritization of "healthy" in restaurants was solely limited to buzzwords like calories, fat, and sodium. 

Well, now those millennials have kids of their own. So we're predicting similar changes coming to kids menus. According to a 2019 survey of millennials by Whole Foods, convenience, quality, and transparency in food sourcing were the top factors influencing their food purchases. And within that group, millennials with children indicated those factors (along with more organic options available at purchase) carried an even greater importance when making food decisions.

Fried food with a side of fries, please.

Seriously, have you looked at a restaurant kid's menu lately?

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Whether it was last week or several years ago, not much has changed. In fact, the evolution of kids menus has essentially been stagnant compared to other facets of the fast-changing restaurant industry. Granted, some establishments now offer a side of broccoli, apple slices, or yogurt in place of fries. But most kids' entrées are still a limited selection of starchy, processed items that restaurants seem convinced are the only things kids will eat.

So, when you take those top purchasing factors mentioned above into account—along with the fact that 88% of births in 2018 were to millennial mothers—you can see why we're predicting some serious changes in 2020.

Empowered parents to the rescue!

Millennial parents are now the primary population segment having kids. It's also estimated that they'll continue to be until around 2050 due to many in the generation choosing to have children later in life. And as these new parents start to dine out with their kids, chicken tenders and fries won't fly—at least if you want those young parents coming back. Instead, they'll seek out establishments that provide the same transparency and quality on kids menus as they offer on their adult versions, including more variety. And restaurants will likely feel additional pressure from other generations, too, now that they've seen the changes that pressure from millennial consumers can trigger. This knowledge and momentum may make lots of parents reassess what they've been feeding their kids at restaurants.

And as a parent in between the boomer and millennial generations, I think it's also important to point out that parents in prior generations weren't unconcerned with what their kids ate—because that's not the case at all. There are plenty of non-millennial parents who have long felt that kids menus offered subpar choices with regards to variety, quality, and nutrition. But until we saw millennial's purchasing power get the better of fast-casual operators in the previous decade, this wasn't something most consumers felt they had much influence to change. Admittedly, I was one of those, and felt that if I wanted a night off from cooking, my trade-off was a less-than-stellar dinner out for my kids.

There are signs that many major chain operators are already trying to head this trend off at the pass. According to one chain restaurant that already felt pressure to upgrade their kids offerings two years ago, "We designed our kids' menu around how millennial parents would feed kids in their own home." And by all indications, that's what has to keep happening so those parents continue spending money dining out. So, look for momentum around healthier menu choices for kids to continue growing into 2020.

How to implement this trend into your 2020: We're predicting this becomes a trend this year as more millennials take their kids out to eat and are met with subpar options. But that doesn't mean you have to wait for a tidal wave of public outcry to treat your little ones to a healthy meal. Before dining out, do a little online research to find restaurants in your area that don't strictly adhere to the corn dog/chicken tenders/grilled cheese menu for kids, and spread the word to other parents. Join a Facebook group that promotes healthier kid's fare. Or commit to cooking healthier meals at home until more restaurants bend to the iron will of millennial moms. If you're interested in the latter, the Cooking Light Diet provides thousands of menu choices for even the pickiest eaters. Visit CookingLightDiet.com to sign up for their customizable meal plans, or to read about other parents who've found meal-planning success for the whole family.

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