PHA 2019 Summit

Panera's approach to the kids' menu: 'We're offering kids real options...not just grilled cheese or mac & cheese'

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Panera
Photo: Panera

Related tags: Panera bread, kids menu, Food for kids

Kids' meals at fast food chains are typically limited to chicken nuggets, pizza, or grilled cheese. In 2016, Panera Bread challenged the industry standard by introducing a revamped version of its kids' menu with more healthy soups and salads, as well as giving kids free reign to order off the adult menu (in half-sized portions).

Founder and CEO of Panera Bread, Ron Shaich, said at the time that the kids' menu "should offer the same choices and transparency"​ found on the adults' menu and that its reworked menu offers parents and kids 250 clean label combinations.

“For too long, restaurants in America have served menus full of nutritionally empty chicken nuggets, pizza and fries, paired with sugary drinks and cheap toys,”​ said Shaich.

Shaich then challenged other CEOs of major fast food chains including McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's to eat exclusively from their restaurants' kids' menu for a whole week and see how they felt with the selection.

Panera provides kids with 'real options'

While fast food chains have made efforts to step up the nutrition across its kids menus (Last year, McDonald's created new nutritional criteria​ for its Happy Meals to contain 600 calories or fewer), Panera has upped the ante with its 'Kids Meal Promise' eliminating sugary drink pairings, taking out artificial flavors, preservatives, colors, and sweeteners, and ditching marketing gimmicks (toys and cartoon-branded food items).

At the core of its approach is providing kids with "real options,"​ Sara Burnett, wellness & food policy, Panera Bread, told delegates at the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) Summit 2019​ in Chicago earlier this week. 

"We're offering real options to kids -- not just a grilled cheese and not just mac & cheese, but they can actually order our entire menu in half portions,"​ Burnett said. 

The Panera Kids Meal Promise:

  • Clean:​ No artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners or colors from artificial sources. 
  • Worthy of trust:​ No gimmicks. No distractions. No cartoon characters, crazy colors, toys, or toy-shaped food. 
  • Full of delicious options:​ Let kids be kids. Let them be picky. Let them make their own choices from a menu full of tasty, wholesome options. 
  • Nutritiously paired:​ Growing bodies need a meal complete with nutritious sides. Not fries, not onion rings. Options like organic yogurt, sprouted grain rolls, or apples.
  • Drink optional:​ Kids meals shouldn’t encourage kids to drink a sugary beverage. Ours never have, never will. Water first, then the option of adding organic milk or 100% juice.

The kids' menu contains nine soup and three salad options (e.g. cream of chicken and wild rice soup and a seasonal greens salad) along with standbys such as grilled cheese and mac & cheese. More adventurous eaters can veer into the adult menu and order a half-sized portion of any item, added Burnett.

Its decision to not bundle in sugary drinks into the kids meal was very important to the chain, according to Burnett.

"We don’t bundle beverages at all because we think that that beverage should be a very conscious decision for a parent,"​ she said. Across all Panera stores, soda is still available but at the same price as healthier options such as prickly pear hibiscus and cans of Spindrift sparkling water. 

"It’s the right decision for the customer, long term. We’ve had to nudge them without ostracizing that one person that wants to drink Pepsi every day. We want to respect that customer and bring them a long on the journey and maybe two years from now they’ll transition later,"​ added Burnett. 

A positive choice and real information

Within one year of retooling its beverage offering strategy, the chain served 1,500,000 fewer cups of added sugar beverages (to all customers including kids), according to Burnett. 

"That’s all because we gave customers a positive choice and real information."

 Just because the kids' menu includes Greek salad or turkey chili instead of chips or a cookie, does it mean that kids are ordering those items? According to Burnett, there is a shift taking place especially among older kids (ages six and up).

"Kids are becoming more exploratory, where they might try a salad one time and something else another time. We definitely see it go up with age, where we see a shift in consumption of those broader palate choices and dietary patterns,"​ she said. 

"If you were to ask me what the best sellers are, it’s still mac & cheese and grilled cheese, but we are seeing a shift."

What do you think should be on the kids menu? Should kids be eating what their parents eat, but in smaller portions?

Bring your thoughts and ideas to FoodNavigator-USA's FOOD FOR KIDS summit taking place November 18-20, 2019 in Chicago. More details HERE!


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Kids menu

Posted by Jacklyn Wilson,

Great, now please offer low sugar or sugar free muffins for us diabetic/high blood sugar to enjoy. Would also be a choice for those with weight issues. You are ignoring a high percent of consumers and they actually spend money. Thanks.

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Prices on food

Posted by Cynthia krause,

My grandkids love your Mac and cheese but I was surprised to see you charge 10.49 for a bowl if it. We can eat at most nice restaurants for much less. I still get them what they want but your prices are too high. We do love your food but please consider lowering your pricing. Thank you so much.

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Slandering Competition is a Fool's Game

Posted by Hugo Cabret,

If Panera's CEO feels so confident about the new expanded transparent menu for kids, then why does he feel it necessary to bash the Titans of the industry over chicken nuggets and pizza? Foods like these are NOT "nutritionally empty" nor are any foodstuffs. Energy in, energy out. It is just that simple.

Kids do not care a lick about transparency, let alone understand it, nor are kids looking for "real options". Having a child finish his meal at all is a feat.

Bottom line: No one is required to eat from ANY restaurant. If parents are so concerned about their progenies' welfare through their diets, those folks should feel obligated to prepare all meals themselves. My mom did, and I and my wife still do! We even included the kids in all meal prep since the age of three.

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