Tips for Family-Friendly Restaurant Menus

Tips for Family-Friendly Restaurant Menus

Even before a global pandemic brought us all closer together, young families were spending more and more time in each other’s company, often in restaurants. 

After all, restaurant meals, whether dine-in, takeout or delivery, offer busy, hardworking parents a break from the chores of planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning. Restaurants are a treat, a chance to socialize and maybe even taste something new. 

Family eating dinner at restaurant

Pre-pandemic, Statistics Canada reported that more than half of Canadians (54 percent) were dining in restaurants or ordering takeout at least once a week. Once the pandemic hit, the amount of takeout increased dramatically, a trend that isn’t going away even as restaurants re-open. Why would it, with the convenience of meal prep kits and home delivery apps.

And kids are increasingly the ones making the choice of where to dine. According to Technomic’s 2017 Generational Report, 43 percent of parents allow their children to choose which restaurant to visit. With six million Canadians aged 14 and under, that’s a lucrative market for any restaurant. Yet research shows that only a quarter of fine-dining restaurants and even fewer casual-dining ones offer a kids’ menu. 

Attracting families to your restaurant can be good business. But how do you keep them happy, healthy and coming back for more? It starts with a well-thought-out menu. 

What is “family-friendly” anyway? 

There’s a reason why McDonald’s restaurants introduced the Happy Meal back in 1979: Children have a powerful impact on their parents’ purchasing decisions. Keep them happy and distracted, and you’ll keep the parents coming back. 

While there are many ways to appeal to kids, the most important is to offer food they want to eat—and to present it in an appealing way. 

Make the menu accessible for kids of all ages. Smaller people need smaller portions, but their older siblings will hunger for more. A 12-year-old is unlikely to want what their four-year-old sibling does. 

And although kids are more adventurous eaters these days, younger children are still more sensitive to intense flavours. A kids’ menu can include versions of signature dishes, but should still include perennial favourites like mac and cheese, chicken tenders, French fries, pasta and ice cream. Kids of all ages also love customizable dishes such as pizza or fajitas. 

Restaurants can offer a children’s menu as part of the regular adults’ menu or as a fully separate one. Make it colourful and fun, with images of the food for kids too young to read, as well as clever names to engage older children. And to make your menu truly family-friendly, offer simple, easy-to-read nutritional labels so parents know what’s in the food they’re serving their kids. 

Kids eating with family at restaurant

Allergies and aversions 

Did you know that we are born with about 30,000 tastebuds, but have only about a third of them left by the time we grow up? No wonder the youngest diners have the most sensitive palates, especially when it comes to bitter and spicy flavours. But an aversion to blue cheese or olives is the least of a restaurant’s worries when it comes to catering to kids.

Food allergies are on the rise worldwide. In 1960, around three percent of people had some sort of food allergy; by 2018, that had jumped to seven percent. The range of allergens has also increased, going well beyond the traditional dairy, gluten, nuts and shellfish. So has the severity of allergic reactions. 

There other health concerns to consider, too. Some people avoid certain foods for dietary reasons, while others avoid them for ethical, religious or cultural ones. The number of people who follow a plant-based diet just keeps growing, for instance. Plus, food has emotional resonance and who isn’t craving something comforting right now? 

A family-friendly menu takes all of that into account, and kitchen staff should know how to avoid accidental cross-contamination of common allergens during food prep. While that is no small task, it should be easy to make simple substitutions, such as bean veggie burgers for beef burgers or gluten-free pasta for regular pasta. 

Different groups of kids eating dinner

Budget options 

Taking the family out to dine can be expensive, even for those who aren’t on a budget. But many Canadians are feeling especially cash-strapped in the wake of a pandemic that has gutted whole sectors of the economy. 

One good way to appeal to families is to offer deals such as half-priced or even free kids’ meals, special weeknight discounts or family-style set menu packages. 

The ingredients for kids’ meals are often less expensive, so even “kids eat free” deals can be a better value for a restaurant than offering a coupon. But it’s essential to make it clear that any discounted children’s meal must come with the purchase of an adult entrée and is limited to kids 12 and under. Teenage appetites could easily devour any potential profits. 

One popular trend is offering family meal deals, especially for takeout. These meals combine shared appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts to enjoy at a lower cost than ordering them à la carte. Family meals are especially popular—and convenient—for holiday celebrations, and for restaurants, can increase customer loyalty as well as revenue. 

Other fun ideas include “happy hour for kids,” where they get a free juice or dessert, or loyalty programs that earn special prizes. 

Dining in 

Whether dining indoors or on a patio, eating at a restaurant can be fun for a family—or fraught with tantrums and anxiety. In addition to creating menus that cater to all a family’s needs, smart restaurateurs also create an environment that makes them and everyone around them comfortable. 

For the youngest children, that might mean a complimentary snack plate of fruit, cereal or crackers served right away to stave off any hangry tears. For older children, that could mean offering similar foods to those their parents enjoy, just in smaller portions or simpler preparations. Think flatbread pizza topped with fresh veggies or baked chicken with pesto. 

In addition to the menu, the physical setting is important. Families need bigger tables and space to stow gear such as strollers, baby carriers and diaper bags. Booster seats or high chairs let the little ones join in the fun, and make parents comfortable, too. Wipes for sticky fingers, bibs for potential spills and sippy cups with lids keep things (mostly) tidy, while tabletop activities can offset boredom and tears. 

Most of all, make sure your staff is trained how to be welcoming and understanding, yet assertive enough to deal with potential problems. 

Colourful meals

Takeout and delivery

Studies have shown that, after the pandemic began, 4.2 million more Canadians than before were ordering food online at least once a week. Nearly half have said they plan to keep doing so once the pandemic was over. 

The rise of delivery apps has put a world of restaurant cuisine right at consumers’ fingertips. According to DoorDash, the most popular international cuisines among Canadian users were Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Chinese and Italian. Easy-to-read, easy-to-access menus are crucial when it comes to competing with a hungry marketplace. 

Meal kits, too, have been a much-appreciated time saver for busy families. Services like HelloFresh, Fresh Prep and GoodFood do all the planning and prep, and provide convenient recipe cards and easy-to-follow directions, making it a snap to get a healthy, home-cooked dinner on the table. They offer lots of choice for picky kids and bored parents, and are customizable for dietary preferences. 

Meanwhile, savvy restaurateurs offer so-called “provisions,” prepared dishes like chowder or lasagna that can be frozen and stowed in the freezer until needed. 

Provisions, family meals and kids’ menus may not have been part of your restaurant’s original plan, but these are unprecedented times, and call for unprecedented measures. All of these offer a new way to keep diners satisfied and coming back for more. 

Written by Joanne Sasvari

Kids enjoying meal with family