The kids may be sad that summer is over and school is back in session, but it’s happy hour from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Sonic Drive-In restaurants where the Limeades, Slushes and other popular drinks are priced half off.

The Oklahoma City-based quick-service restaurant chain also kicked off its return to school promotions with half-priced cheeseburgers on Aug. 14.

“There is some seasonality associated with back-to-school,” says Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations for 3,522-unit Sonic Drive-In. “It is not a material amount, but we are always looking for opportunities to encourage visits to Sonic to balance out that seasonality.”

This time of year can be a challenging period for restaurant operators as the return of school prompts families and college students to alter their daily routines and dining habits. To keep consumers coming in for visits in the midst of their shifting schedules, restaurants launch a variety of promotions focused on foods kids love to eat and pricing strategies that are budget-friendly for the family.

Restaurant operators need to focus on more than “kids eat free” nights or kids’ menus, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry research firm, Technomic in Chicago.

“Kids drive the dining occasions more by what they want than by how much it costs,” Tristano says. “Parents are looking for deals; kids are looking for foods they like.”

Children’s tastes are evolving beyond the typical kids' meal of chicken fingers and pizza slices, says Sharon Olson, founder of Y-Pulse, a food-focused youth marketing research based in Chicago.

“A lot of kids like the same basic foods when they are younger, but we are seeing a lot more interest in different foods and flavors,” Olson says.

In a recent Y-Pulse survey of 500 boys and girls, ages 8 to 13, 43 percent said they like to try new dishes and flavors, although most of the time they stick to their favorites. Ten percent of those surveyed always like to try new dishes while 13 percent said they usually try new foods. One-third said they preferred to stick to familiar foods and their favorite dishes.

After age 9, children are less interested in the kids’ menu but want choices from the adult menu, Olson says. Teen-agers and young millennials — born approximately between 1990 and 2002 — like to customize their food, mixing and matching items, like a chicken wrap with a small salad, or vegetables and dipping sauces with a protein.

“Instead of chicken fingers they may pick teriyaki chicken,” she says. “Kids are a lot more experimental and exposed to more ethnic foods at school.”

Ethnic items that appeal to kids' palates can indeed be a draw at schools. Last year, when Pomptonian Food Service was asked by client Ridgewood (New Jersey) School District to revamp the elementary school menu program, the company focused on healthful, flavorful and visually appealing items that also were cost-effective.

After testing an array of different items, Pomptonian scaled back the menu to include a selection of new foods that were devised to appeal to the school-age customer base. In addition to offering such options as chopped salads, cage-free/all-natural chicken items, antibiotic-free beef sliders, Asian salad bowls, homemade soups and smoothies, they also featured such monthly promotions as sushi, homemade pastas and Belgian waffles.

The program proved to be successful, with sales increasing by more than 57 percent. It also was expanded to middle schools in the district, where sales rose by 14 percent over the year-earlier period.

Increasingly, health also is playing a greater role in the development of kids' menus in the commercial restaurant sector. Kids LiveWell, a program developed by the National Restaurant Association to encourage foodservice operators to offer more healthful choices for children, now has 150 restaurant concepts participating. The concepts represent 42,000 locations nationwide and include such casual-dining brands as Chili’s Grill & Bar, Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carrabbas Italian Grill and such fast-casual and quick-service brands as BD Mongolian Grill and Sonic Drive-In.

The restaurant members agree to offer and promote menu items based on leading health organizations’ scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. The goal is to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and limiting total calories, unhealthy fats, sugar and sodium.

Sonic Drive-In’s “Wacky Packs” have been popular with children, Lenow says. The meal deal includes fresh apple slices and juices along with small cheeseburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches.

“We serve families all year long with a full menu available all day,” he says. “Back to School is a crazy time for families, and we like to take this opportunity to give our guests a little bit of appreciation, as well as an easy lunch or dinner solution during this busy time.”

Even if children are driving dining-out decisions, restaurants need to offer something for parents and often the right pricing is part of that attraction, says Natalie Anderson, senior brand manager for Plano, Texas-based Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes. The 67-unit chain, now in 15 states as well as in Canada and the Middle East, has been promoting a “Moo for Two” deal — two burger meals for a reduced price as an incentive for families during the back-to-school season.

“When the crazy time of summer is over and people are getting back to their regular routines, we want Mooyah to be a part of that,” Anderson says.

The better-burger concept allows customers to custom build their sandwiches by choosing from five different proteins, two different breads or lettuce wrap and 25 different sauces and spices.

“When families come into Mooyah, everyone can get something they like,” she says. “We are out to dissuade the 'no' vote, whether it comes from a 40-year old or a 4-year old.”