(July 30) MONTEREY, Calif. — The greatest growth opportunities for foodservice are in fruit and the children’s menu categories.

This was the overwhelming message from research revealed at the 5 a Day Foodservice Summit on July 23.

Vegetable mentions on menus outnumber fruit mentions 10 to one, said Brenda Humphreys, foodservice director for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del. That was a finding from an analysis of the menus of the top 200 restaurant chains recently completed for PBH by Food Beat Inc., Wheaton, Ill.

The menu analysis was one of three sets of research highlighted at the summit attended by nearly 60 foodservice professionals. Nearly a dozen of them were foodservice operators. All three sets of research revealed an underdeveloped market for fruit and nutritious items for children in restaurants.

The research was underwritten by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and a grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Some of the research results were repeated at the general session breakfast at PMA’s Foodservice Conference, Tours & Expo on July 25.

Of the top 200 chains, 53 don’t even mention a fruit on the menu. Strawberries are the fruit mentioned in the most number of chains.

Other than for breakfast, no restaurants are perceived as offering a good selection of fruit, said Laura MacPhail, a principal with The Hale Group, Danvers, Mass. That consumer opinion summary comes from focus groups and intercept surveys the company conducted for PBH.

“You need to make sure there’s value for the consumer,” MacPhail said, noting that consumers aren’t likely to order and pay a restaurant price for fruit they could eat just as easily at home.

The fruits consumers would like to see on menus are fresh-cut grapefruit, melon, berries, grapes and bananas, and they prefer that they are not canned, processed or soggy.

The fruits consumers eat most — at home or in restaurants — are apples, bananas and grapes, said Joe Derochowski with NPD Foodworld, Rosemont, Ill. The company contracts with consumers to keep food diaries to track actual eating patterns.

While 67% of all individuals consume an item at a fast-food restaurant at least once in an average two-week period, only 18% of them eat a fruit or vegetable from a fast-food restaurant regularly. Derochowski said that may increase as restaurants introduce more entrée salads with protein in them.

The menu items with a fruit or vegetable that children order is minimal.

Only 12% of children order a side or starter salad and only 7% order an appetizer that includes vegetables, according the consumer surveys.

It’s likely children don’t order more fruits or vegetables from the menu because they don’t have that option on the children’s menu, NPD’s Derochowski said.

In 2003, there were more than 3,000 mentions of vegetables in entrees on the menus of the top 200 restaurant chains. But there only were about 100 mentions of vegetables on the entire kid’s menu at those restaurants. He cited Red Lobster for its efforts to improve the children’s menu and how the chain believes children want to eat like their parents. Red Lobster offers a child portion of mahi-mahi with steamed vegetables.

From its surveys and focus groups, The Hale Group found that typical orders by kids in casual restaurants included no fruits or vegetables.

Kids usually order chicken fingers, grilled cheese, burgers, hot dogs, nachos, macaroni and cheese, french fries or pasta.