The restaurant industry, which has been hard hit by the recession, is trying a new tactic to attract cash-strapped parents to take the family out for a meal: Kids eat free. IHOP is one of the latest restaurants to launch a kids-eat-free initiative; the chain will offer free kids meals seven nights a week for the next month. According to industry analysts, IHOP’s move, unprecedented by a national restaurant chain, is another signal of just how tough times are in the $566 billion restaurant industry. Restaurant operators have reported customer traffic declines for a staggering 22 consecutive months, the National Restaurant Association reports. Families are staying home: Visits from families with kids were down 5% for the year ended in June, NPD Group says. To combat that trend, many area restaurants are offering free kids’ meals. Other major chains have recently joined the kids-eat-free trend, including Fazoli’s, El Torito and even Ikea. Most participating restaurants require the purchase of an adult meal and the offer is intended for those younger than 12 (or 10, in some cases). In addition, some restaurants are offering a kids-eat-free deal on certain days (Tuesdays seem to be the most popular), during restricted hours (evenings are best) or for a limited time. Deals often vary by location. “Free is magic,” says Barry Schwartz, psychology professor at Swarthmore College. “It will seduce people into eating out who shouldn’t.” In addition, parents sometimes spend more than if they had paid for the kids meals, by buying desserts or drinks. Many chains don’t include drinks with the “free” meals. Offering discounts or free meals is not a new concept, but what is new is that more and more restaurants are offering free food to remain competitive in this slumping economic environment. “The reason is the same as everyone else: to increase traffic,” says Lowell Petrie, marketing chief for parent Real Mex Restaurants. Over Labor Day weekend, the Ikea furniture chain’s restaurants may have the best kids-eat-free deal: no strings. Parents won’t have to buy anything to get free kids meals, spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss says, “It’s about bringing traffic to the stores. You can bring in the whole soccer team.” Source: Kelly, Jill, “Restaurants let kids eat free to lure the parents,” Dayton Daily News, August 18, 2009; Horovitz, Bruce, “IHOP, other restaurants lure parents with kids eat free deals,” USA Today, August 16, 2009.