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What Influences Children’s Menu Choices in Restaurants?

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American consumers are spending nearly as much money on food outside the home (e.g., restaurants, food stands, etc.) as on food that is prepared within the home. In many cases, this has prompted restaurants and other food preparers to create children’s menus.

Unfortunately, 91 percent of the children’s menus at the top 50 restaurant chains do not meet the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell Program’s nutritional standards and 50 percent do not meet the program’s criterion of approximately 600 calories or less per children’s meal.

With this in mind, a research team led by San Diego State University professors, Dr. Guadalupe X. Ayala and Dr. Iana Castro, set out to identify what influenced children’s restaurant orders and what might encourage heathier food selections.

With 10 full-service independent restaurants in the San Diego area participating in the study, two team members – an observer and an interviewer – were deployed to the restaurants at times when they indicated that dining parties with children would be present.

During the study, the observer accompanied the server to the table as he/she performed normal duties. Dining parties of two to six people were simply told that the observer was “shadowing” the server to minimize any impact upon routine ordering behavior. Once the observation was completed, the observer texted the interviewer who obtained permission from, and asked scripted questions of, the dining party.

After observing and interviewing 102 dining parties, the team found that 60 percent of the child diners knew what they wanted to order prior to arriving at the restaurant and that 92 percent of them ordered their pre-ordained menu choice. They also found that parents were involved with ordering on behalf of the child 54 percent of the time for children between the ages of 12 – 14 and 93 percent of the time for children between the ages of three and six.

"Our research suggests that influence on what is ordered for, and by, children may need to begin before the dining party arrives at the restaurant." - Dr. Iana Castro

During the observation process, they noticed that servers did not suggest child menu choices in 73 percent of cases and almost never engaged in dietary or nutritional suggestions. It should also be noted that none of the 10 restaurants in the study offered nutritional information for any of their menu choices.

So what could prompt healthier eating outside the home? While some of the dining parties interviewed said children’s menu pictures and descriptions along with server suggestions might influence their choices, the researchers determined that improving children’s menu offerings may not make any impact without an understanding of the underlying factors that influence what children want to order in the first place.

“Our research suggests that influence on what is ordered for, and by, children may need to begin before the dining party arrives at the restaurant,” said Castro. “Furthermore, encouraging diners to order healthy children’s menu choices may be helped by strategies that target both parents and children once they are in the restaurant.”

Finally, the team noted that, given the lack of nutritional information on children’s menus and the fact that the vast majority of top restaurant chains do not comply with stated nutritional standards, further collaborations between restaurants and public health officials have the potential to improve children’s diets.