September, 2016

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

The Power Of Produce On Kids’ Menus

By Brian Darr, Managing Director, Datassential


Fruits and vegetables are the primary go-to healthy foods when parents shop for their kids at the grocery store. This presents valuable opportunities for the produce industry to market fruits and veggies in new, exciting, and innovative ways. It’s also a chance for supermarkets, food suppliers, school foodservice operators, and restaurants to use the power of produce to enhance kids’ meals for both taste and nutrition. Datassential’s Keynote Report on Kids’ Menus combines the extensive detail of the Datassential MenuTrends database with the opinions and behaviors of more than 800 parents nationwide and insight from hundreds of restaurant and school foodservice operators. Here are a few produce insights from the Report.


Produce For Kids At Home

Home is where the “healthy” is — according to our Keynote Report, 85 percent of parents say their kids eat the healthiest meals at home, where they have the most control over their children’s diets. They rank fresh fruits and veggies as a very important factor when they shop for their kids (78 percent). Parents are also working hard to not only get their kids to eat healthy foods but also to enjoy them. It’s no surprise that taste is the prime factor that kids use to determine what they’ll eat.

While parents consider a variety of factors when choosing foods for their kids, 72 percent of parents are trying to get their kids to build up a taste for healthier foods, and 69 percent want to broaden their kid’s food horizon.

There are ways to make vegetables more appealing to children. Portability is paramount, as is the ability for a child to manage the food independently. Fruits and vegetables are well-positioned for on-the-go consideration in pre-portioned snack packs. Parents are also looking to feed their kids “clean” foods that are labeled with terms such as “organic,” “sustainability,” and “ethically sourced.”


In The Lunch Line

While parents attempt to watch what their kids eat, many put their trust in schools to provide quality, nutritious meals. Most kids eat at school cafeterias at least three times per week. Thanks to government mandates and guidelines, K-12 schools are actually doing a substantial job exposing kids to fruits, greens, and new veggies. Potatoes (on 98 percent of K-12 menus) and carrots (on 89 percent of K-12 menus) are the most commonly used vegetables in schools. Carrot-focused dishes and ingredients like glazed carrots, carrot sticks, baby carrots, and peas and carrots are high indexing items. More value-added options for fruit and vegetable applications that save time could play an important role in helping manufacturers reach schools. Prep times are also relevant to the menu development process. Examples include items that are pre-peeled, pre-sliced, ready-to-cook, or pureed.

Schools must also follow strict sodium guidelines. The produce industry may find success promoting their products by showing schools how fruits and veggies add flavor without added salt. Aromatic vegetables that are naturally lower in sodium and packed with flavor include onions, carrots, celery, and garlic.


Going Beyond Traditional Kid
Favorites At Restaurants

Half of all U.S. restaurants offer kids’ menus. The majority of parents highly rate these menus for offering foods that children enjoy, but they are less satisfied with the variety of options, the number of healthy choices, and the diversity of dishes and flavors beyond traditional favorites. Unlike schools that have mandates for including fresh produce in meals, restaurants are not held to the same standard. This presents an opportunity for operators to push for new produce menuing beyond French fries. Nutritious sides that include vegetable medleys and carrots (both up 14 percent over the past year) and broccoli (up 9 percent over the past year) are increasingly featured. In addition, healthier juice varieties may be an area that operators explore. Juice is already a popular choice for kids as an alternative to soda. Notable fresh varieties for juice include fresh-squeezed, organic, smoothies, and more. K-12 menus could spark inspiration for creative uses for veggies. Potatoes, carrots, corn, and broccoli are menued at roughly 9 out of 10 schools. 


Opportunities For Produce
In Kids’ Meals:

Restaurants can aim to move away from traditional kids fare and introduce kids (and parents) to fresh dishes.

Datassential’s Keynote Report on Kids’ Menus shows that kids are more likely to enjoy authentic ethnic cuisines than to dislike them, a key area where veggies can be added.

Understanding what kids at different age levels want and need can help identify solutions to parents’ food challenges.

Fresh fruits and veggies are well-positioned for on-the-go consideration.

Get to know today’s meaning of “healthy.”


For questions or to purchase the report, please contact Brian Darr at 312-655-0594 or


Datassential, a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm, brings clients real-world information on foodservice and consumer packaged goods in the U.S. and around the world. The company’s services, including its extensive MenuTrends database, provide in-depth reporting on trends in menu offerings, flavor profiles, ingredients, and preparations. Datassential helps operators, retailers, and suppliers understand and capitalize on these important trends.


Fundamental Challenges To Kids’ Consumption Of Fruits And Vegetables

It is often pointed out that what people say they want and what they actually purchase and/or consume can differ greatly. Rarely is that more true than when you ask parents about food for their own children.

It is not surprising that parents would report home eating is healthiest for children; it actually is healthiest for everyone. After all, Mom can control portion size, and she can control assortment.

Vegetables in school foodservice or restaurants are offered, but if your kid doesn’t like squash sautéed in tomato sauce, then it is unlikely to be consumed. A mom can know that Johnny likes green beans, carrots, peas and Spaghetti squash, and include one of these on the menu every day.

We know from credible data we have on baby food and milk that many a parent who will do without organic for themselves will ante up to ensure their children have what they perceive to be the best.

So there is good reason to think that effective marketing tied to “clean” and “healthy” will lead parents to pay more for the “best” fruits and vegetables, which creates some marketing opportunity.

Certainly, those families that come from regions or belong to ethnicities that have diets rich in fruits and vegetables are going to naturally have diets that are more produce-dense.

Of course, moms have always urged their children to eat more fruits and vegetables. So how much change this represents and how much it means produce consumption can be increased is unclear.

There are fundamental challenges that make increasing produce consumption among kids difficult. Most notably, it is one thing to boost consumption of sweet snack fruit, since kids typically enjoy fruit, so feeding them fruit can be done with increased availability. However, many of the most nutrient-dense produce items are bitter and less appealing to a child’s palate.

And many industry efforts to boost consumption among kids, such as efforts to use cartoons or puppet characters to attract children to fruits and vegetables, have not been shown to increase consumption.

Fundamentally, whatever parents may like to buy, children are not generally feeling their mortality, so they want to eat foods that taste good. When it comes to produce industry efforts to boost consumption, maybe the focus has to be on making the healthiest produce items taste better.

School foodservice seems like an opportunity, but it turns out that compelling school foodservice operations to serve more produce is a lot easier than compelling children to eat more produce.

In the school attended by this author’s children, each student was required to accept a vegetable on his or her plate. After a few months in which the garbage pails were filled with discarded vegetables, the school abandoned the effort.

Even things that excite the produce industry may not actually be beneficial in the long run. The industry loves salad bars in schools, because the minute a school opens one, the industry starts receiving orders for produce items that had never been purchased by the school.

There is also real fear that children, not being experts in salad composition, may turn themselves off consuming salad items because adding salad bar items on their plate may cause digestive problems. Maybe offering composed salads on a long-term basis would serve to boost consumption.

Restaurants have been chastised for not offering children healthy options in kid’s meals, and many establishments have responded. McDonald’s has Cuties; Disney made the default option baby carrots, grapes and apple slices.

At Darden restaurants, there is a commitment to make fruit and vegetables the default side dish, 1 percent milk is promoted, and at least one children’s menu option must meet specific criteria regarding calories, sodium and fat.

Offering juice instead of soda may feel healthier, but the truth is many juice drinks have more sugar than Coca-Cola.

There are many restaurants trumpeting new offerings, but very few announced the improvements these healthier offerings caused in leading children to have healthier diets.

In addition, the science on health and nutrition is changing and unsettled. Not very long ago, expert opinion was that the big problem with French fries was the frying. Now the same experts tell us the oil is the best part. They worry about the glycemic load of the potato itself. So it is not always clear what a healthy option means.

Intuitively, it seems smart to focus on changing dietary habits of children to be more produce-dense. This, it is thought, will increase the likelihood that children will continue to eat more fruits and vegetables as they move into adulthood — although the evidence for this is still unconfirmed.

We don’t really know what will work. Is this primarily a marketing problem? A culinary problem? Or is it something inherent in the product?

With increased travel, global media and a more ethnically diverse society, there is little question that there is a world of dishes waiting to be discovered by children, and we would be foolish to not try all we can.