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Orlando mom Cindy Metzger, right, dines out at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant, with 6-year-old daughter Ava, April 19, 2012, in Orlando, Florida. Metzger is among the families trending toward not buying kids meals to save on cost. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Sunday, April 29, 2012

Less appetite for children’s meals at restaurants

ORLANDO, Fla. – At lunch at Chick-fil-A recently with her 6-year-old daughter, Ava, Cindy Metzger of Orlando skipped the pint-sized kids’ nuggets and ordered a regular chicken sandwich.

“She all of a sudden one day wanted to have the numbered meals,” Metzger said, referring to adult fast-food combos on the menu. “As they become older, they become more exposed to what we eat. There’s other options on the menu.”

Children’s meals are declining in popularity, and the trend is the most pronounced in fast-food places. Last year alone, child meals that include toys dropped by 6 percent, according to market-research firm NPD Group, from 1.3 billion to 1.2 billion.

Several reasons account for the decline.

Some parents think the meals are unhealthy or that they can save money by ordering a la carte from value menus or by sharing adult entrees with their little ones. But experts also say youngsters are losing interest in children’s meals at an earlier age.

“That’s not necessarily what kids today want,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant analyst. “They’ve become more sophisticated in their palates. They’re looking for smaller versions of some of the things Mom and Dad order.”

David Hasselberger has seen that in the Nature’s Table restaurants he runs in St. Cloud, Fla.

In the past year, parents have ordered 40 percent fewer entrees such as peanut butter and jelly or grilled-cheese sandwiches. Instead, he said, moms and dads are ordering adult meals “because their kids want a half a sesame Thai chicken wrap, or half a chipotle chicken wrap.”

Representatives with McDonald’s and Wendy’s, two of the nation’s largest fast-food chains, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Burger King wouldn’t discuss sales but said it revamped its children’s program late last year to include interactive activities and newly designed cardboard crowns.

At fast-food restaurants, Riggs said, parents can often save money by ordering off value menus.

At one Chick-fil-A in Apopka, Fla., “I’ve seen a good handful (of children) who are eating our salads, which is awesome,” said Marsha McNees, the restaurant’s marketing director.

Like many other chains, Chick-fil-A has added healthier food for young people. It now offers fruit pouches and lemonade, milk or juice as sides, and has added grilled chicken nuggets. McDonald’s has downsized its french fries and added apples to all Happy Meals.

Subway ditched cookies and sodas for apples and juice or milk a couple of years ago, said Curt DiPasqua, who oversees more than 300 Central Florida restaurants. It also cut prices slightly.

But that hasn’t increased interest in children’s meals, which include 3-inch sandwiches.

They remain a fraction of sales – between 2 and 3 percent, DiPasqua said.

“Kids like to emulate adults,” DiPasqua said. “As soon as they’re 5, 6, 7 years old, they want to choose their sandwich off the menu.”

He said he had noticed, too, that parents often share sandwiches with their youngsters.

Maria Casillas was doing exactly that as she and her 5-year-old daughter, Mariana, enjoyed a spicy Italian footlong at an Altamonte Springs, Fla., Subway.

Casillas, a stay-at-home mom, doesn’t buy fast-food kids’ meals because “it’s not enough for them,” and it’s too unhealthy.

And it’s not just fast-food restaurants where parents are choosing entrees meant for big people.

When Karen Wright eats out at sit-down chains with her three children, she’ll often let them order an adult-sized entree to split.

“Instead of three kids’ meals, I can order one adults’ meal. That’s a lot cheaper,” said Wright, 33, who lives in Leesburg, Fla. “I don’t want my kids to eat chicken fingers and fries. It’s not good for you. Health and money.”

Other than adding healthier items, restaurants haven’t done much to cater to kids’ changing tastes.

Tony Roma’s is working on a “tween” menu, similar to Texas Roadhouse’s “Ranger Meals” for older kids.

But menus aimed at older children, which McDonald’s also offers, have taken a particularly hard hit the past few years. Orders of older-kids meals dove 16 percent in 2011, NPD Group said.

Burger King has discontinued its Big Kids Meal, which had been aimed at youngsters between 7 and 12.

Eateries should make children’s menus reflect the wider array of choices on adult menus, said Julie Casey, whose Orlando consulting company helps restaurants make themselves more family friendly.

“The restaurant industry as a whole … is pretty slow to change and adapt to the changing face of kids,” she said. “Their palates have evolved quicker than the industry has.”