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Stop Kidding Around

Today’s youngest diners are seeking the same elevated experiences as their parents, so your children’s menus should mirror their adult counterparts.

Pint-sized gourmets have taken control of the traditional kids’ table. Classic items like chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and hamburgers aren’t as enticing to tiny tastebuds as they once were. Today’s Generation Alpha kids, born between 2011 and 2023, are leaning into healthier, customizable, and sophisticated options that support a more memorable dining experience.

“Kids are often an afterthought, but they really are a huge missed opportunity,” said Maeve Webster (Menu Matters) in an article for Catersource.

Mango Lava Slushies garnished with gummy candies. Photo courtesy National Mango Board

“We need to understand that kids want to be treated the same as adults at an event, they don’t want to have a sad buffet with food that is different,” adds Sarah McClure (LUX Catering & Events*). “When designing a menu, do your best to incorporate the kid-friendly things in the same way as the adult menus.”

From Alpha to Z

Generation Alpha, currently ages 0–13, will swiftly and decisively alter the food and beverage landscape. They are set to reach nearly two billion people globally by 2025 and will become the largest generation in history, according to Datassential

The children of millennials

As the children of millennials, much of this generation’s eating habits can be attributed to their health-conscious parents calling for healthier, more varied fare on children’s menus. 

“Food is so important, as we all know. Starting to indulge children in local, fresh ingredients only sets them up for success and enjoyment in the food world as they grow,” says Christina Cerri (Taste Catering & Event Planning*).

During a science-themed children’s birthday party, LUX Catering & Events had a nitrogen-infused root beer float station. Photo courtesy Billow & Mull Photography 

In fact, 80% of millennial parents surveyed by Datassential aim for a balanced diet and healthier food preferences for their children and prioritize food claims like “high protein”, “organic”, and “gluten-free” over “low fat”, “low sodium”, and “high fiber”. They also consider sustainable sourcing crucial, likely instilling these perspectives in their Generation Alpha children.

Fastest Growing Ingredients and Sauces/Flavors for Kids

  • Plant Based Chicken
  • Wagyu
  • Lemon Pepper
  • Sriracha
  • Honey BBQ
  • Chipotle
  • Chickpea
  • Vegan
  • Buffalo
  • Feta

Information above courtesy Datassential

“Millennial parents are demanding, as they should be,” says Greg Ingles (Food2You Inc. Catering, which specializes in meals for early education and daycare centers). “This generation is savvy about nutrition and has more sophisticated preferences, so it is important for us to provide the best quality food possible and introduce a variety of different foods, so their kids have a well-rounded experience of food.”

Children are very sensory, so anything that engages multiple senses (like nitrogen-infused root beer floats) is a win. Photo courtesy Billow & Mull Photography

Thirty-one percent of Generation Alphas are already eating on-trend ingredients like plant-based foods, according to Datassential. Some of the top growing foods on kids’ menus today include beef fajitas, boneless wings, and mini quesadillas, while top ingredients, sauces, and flavors include plant-based chicken, wagyu beef, and lemon pepper.

The technology generation

Another contributor to Generation Alpha’s culinary tastes stems from their exposure to TikTok, YouTube, and other social media. For example, mini pancakes, which originally were a TikTok trend during the pandemic, are trending on kids’ menus, growing 73% over the past four years, according to Menu Trends. With Generation Alpha growing up as digital natives (19% of Generation Alpha parents say their kids spend one to two hours on social media in a typical day), these budding influencers are constantly staying on top of social media food trends and melding their food preferences with their digital know-how.

Culinary travelers

Generation Alpha is experiencing more global flavors than ever before (thus developing their palates). In addition to experiencing international cuisines thanks to their Millennial foodie parents exposing them to more culturally diverse recipes, menus, and restaurants, they are also traveling more, with Millennials continuing to introduce their children to different countries. We also can’t underestimate the importance of urbanization, which is introducing them to more cultural offerings thanks to their diverse friend and school groups. 

Food2You Inc. Catering strives for keen attention to detail in every dish, and their chef-created Whole Wheat Rotini garnished with fresh basil wins rave reviews. Photo courtesy Food2You Inc. Catering

“I find kids are enjoying more flavors and more adult flavors these days,” says Cerri. 

The recipe for success 

By curating an elevated children’s menu beyond the typical fare, caterers can not only instill new eating habits in their clients by offering a “teachable moment,” but they can also earn a customer for life. 

Keep children entertained during an event with hands-on activities, like this paper airplane station during LUX Catering & Events’ science-themed birthday party. Photo courtesy Billow & Mull Photography

“Curating children’s menus is so much more than opening a box of frozen chicken nuggets,” says Ingles. “Mealtime for these little kids is experiential learning, so it needs to be fun and interactive.”

“Parents expect their children to be able to take part in events with them, so having a kid’s menu should be a strong consideration for every caterer,” adds Chris Olson (Land O’ Lakes Foodservice). “Knowing children will be taken care of just like the adults is important for event organizers to consider so everyone feels included. There are some flavors and textures that kids don’t respond well to, so having a select menu for them helps organizers streamline ordering.”

A snack box from Land O’ Lakes Foodservice featuring cheddar cheese cubes, hard-boiled eggs, pretzel crisps, and strawberries. Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

The Ultimate Buffalo Ranch Chicken Salad (creamy white cheese sauce, buffalo-style hot sauce, ranch dressing, diced chicken, diced celery, shredded carrots, and diced red onion). Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

Sweet sriracha chile sauce served with veggies and egg rolls. Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

Let’s look at some of the different ways to set up your children’s menu for success. 

A dash of whimsy 

Children are more likely to eat a meal that looks appealing and fun. The visual appeal of a dish can significantly impact a child’s willingness to try it. Kid-friendly catering menus should feature vibrant and colorful creations that capture the attention of young eyes. From rainbow fruit skewers to vegetable-based “rainbow” pasta, bright colors can pique a child’s interest in their food. Incorporating a variety of hues not only adds excitement to the plate but also ensures a diverse range of nutrients.

“Children need so many senses stimulated, so trying to find that balance is key,” Cerri says. 

Mexican Lasagna (whole wheat tortillas, beef crumbles, Mexican seasoning, salsa, roasted corn and jalapeño blend, jalapeño cheese sauce, shredded mild cheddar cheese, and sour cream). Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

Food2You serves children chilled, low-fat organic milk and two varieties of fresh vegetables every day. Photo courtesy Food2You Inc. Catering

Cheesy broccoli. Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

Another idea is to embrace the power of the mini. Everything is more appealing when it’s miniaturized, and the same goes for food. Mini sliders, bite-sized fruit skewers, and tiny desserts are not only adorable but also encourage kids to try a variety of flavors without feeling overwhelmed. The downsized portions are perfect for little hands and appetites. Plus, what kid doesn’t like to eat with their fingers?

Fastest Growing Dishes for Kids

  • Beef Fajita
  • Boneless Wings
  • Mini Quesadillas
  • White Rice
  • Pho
  • Sweet Tea
  • Tater Tots
  • Chicken Quesadillas
  • Seasoned Fries
  • Mini Pancakes

Information above courtesy Datassential

“It is important to provide visual stimulation in terms of variety and color so the food looks interesting as well as tastes great,” says Ingles. “We want to help the kids develop good eating habits and when the food presentation is alluring and the food tastes great, it is easier to do that.”

A pinch of fun

Playfulness extends beyond the plate to presentation. Creative and whimsical arrangements can turn an ordinary dish into an exciting adventure. Consider serving spaghetti in muffin cups, creating edible art with fruit kabobs, or presenting desserts and sandwiches in playful, themed shapes to make the dining experience truly magical for kids. This creativity can also extend to beverages with such options as nitrogen infused root beer floats or a color-changing lemonade station.

Food2You kids love these protein-packed Turkey Meatball Sliders with whole grain rolls. Photo courtesy Food2You Inc. Catering

Cheesy Tikka Masala (jalapeño cheese sauce, diced chicken, tomato sauce, curry powder, dehydrated onion flakes, garlic powder, chili powder, paprika, and Garam masala). Photo courtesy Land O’ Lakes Foodservice

Food2You’s Whole Grain Cinnamon Roll Muffins with a side of fresh fruit power up little kids’ mornings. Photo courtesy Food2You Inc. Catering

Kids love to be hands-on, so incorporating do-it-yourself stations can be a hit. Think make-your-own pizza, taco, or sandwich stations, allowing young diners to customize their meals. 

“We find kids really enjoy the interactive nature of food,” says McClure. “You could elevate something as simple as a PB&J into something incredible with the right components.”

This interactive approach not only empowers children to make choices but also turns mealtime into a fun and engaging activity.

During the science-themed children’s birthday party, LUX Catering & Events utilized butterfly pea tea for a color-changing lemonade station. Photos courtesy Billow & Mull Photography

“Think of something like a holiday party where you can incorporate a gingerbread making area for children,” says Cerri. “You’re able to keep them entertained and busy while the adults mingle.” 

A dollop of creativity

When developing your children’s menus, let your staff flex their culinary creativity by developing new dishes. 

“We do not like to pander to kids when it comes to the menus we prepare—they would eat mac and cheese every day if they could,” says Ingles. “When developing our menus, we look at it from an adult perspective first and then modify it for preferences of kids.”

One place to start when developing your children’s menus is to look at your adult menus for reference. You can simply reduce portions of a few adult offerings and give them a kid-friendly flair.

“We do try to put our own stamp on it,” says Cerri. “Whether that is adding some new flavors or making the design a little more interesting.”

Chartwells K12 List of 10 Popular Food Trends for 2024

1. Creative dips 

Dips add a burst of flavor and texture to dishes and can be a great way to encourage students to eat more vegetables, Chartwells K12 notes. Roasted Beet Hummus and homemade “House Special” BBQ Sauces are just some of the dips the foodservice provider serves to students.

2. TikTok takeover 

Social media is influencing students’ requests in the lunchroom. In response, Chartwells K12 has begun taking inspiration from recipes that have gone viral on online platforms like TikTok. The foodservice provider aims to make the recipes served in school healthier than their online counterparts by swapping out certain ingredients. For example, instead of serving a baked feta pasta, Chartwells K12 chefs opted for a penne with spinach, bacon, and grape tomatoes.

3. Mini is mighty 

Operators may want to incorporate miniature versions of students’ favorite dishes into their menus this upcoming year. Students are becoming drawn to menu items such as mini waffles, pulled pork sliders, and more.

4. Global eats 

Global dining continues to be popular with Generation Alpha. Latin American and Asian cuisines seem to be of particular interest to this age group. Examples: Caribbean Chicken Fricassee and Gochujang Chicken Lettuce Cups are some of the global offerings that Chartwells K12 has introduced to its menus.

5. Specialty drinks 

Specialty beverages are striking a chord with young eaters. Chartwells K12 is playing up this trend through menu items such as its Avocado Mango Kale Smoothie and Hot Chocolate Milk.

6. Bold spices

Students continue to love dishes with bold seasonings. Using spices also allows chefs to cut back on sodium, says Chartwells K12. Chartwells uses spices to bring bold flavors to dishes like its Thai Style Chicken & Noodle Salad and Honey BBQ Sriracha Chicken Grain Bowl.

7. Alternative proteins 

Students see alternative proteins as a way to better their health and protect the planet. A Spicy Avocado Mushroom Quesadilla and Black Bean Sopes are some of the plant-based items offered at Chartwells K12 cafeterias.

8. Noodles everywhere 

Noodle dishes of all shapes and sizes are beloved by students. Operators can opt for comfort food favorites such as Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese or put a global spin on the ingredient.

9. In-season ingredients 

Menu items that feature farm-to-school ingredients remain popular with students. Operators can further the connection students have with their food through school gardens, partnering with local farms, and more.

10. Food on the run 

Soba Noodle Bento Boxes and Homemade Pumpkin Bars are some of the many grab-and-go offerings available to students at Chartwells K12 cafeterias. As kids continue to be busier than ever, they are searching for more meals they can eat on the go.

Information above courtesy Chartwells K12 

Remember though, it’s important for your menus to appeal to both parents and children alike. 

“One of unique challenges is keeping everyone happy; you want the kids to love your food because they are the ones eating it of course, but you also have to balance their preferences with their parents’ expectations,” says Ingles. “Kids take their lead from adults—if they love our food and sing its praises the kids are more apt to try it too.”  

So, what are you waiting for? You officially have permission to play with your food. 

Since 2006, Zest Kids has offered customized children’s party menus with fun and delicious presentations (like these ice cream cookie sandwiches) based on the personality of each child. Photo courtesy Rogerio Voltan for Zest Kids

“Take the reins and be the concierge for your clients, show them you’re the expert and make planning their menu easy and seamless,” says McClure. “It’s a blast to reimagine something that may be simpler culinary-wise but design it to be more than just a hot dog. 

“It’s a great time to dial into your own childhood and think of things you wish you would’ve seen as a kid.”

* LUX Catering & Events and Taste Catering & Event Planning are proud members of the Leading Caterers of America, a consortium of the top catering and event planners throughout the United States and Canada.  

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.