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Melting pot is mixing up menus ... for kids too!

The nation's palate is skewing ethnic, says "Today"  food editor Phil Lempert. Here he shares his report on the latest trends in the supermarket.

The nation’s palate is doubtlessly skewing ethnic. A trip to Taco Bell for tacos, burritos and gorditas — with rice and beans on the side — can hardly be thought of as exotic today. And according to New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles-based firm specializing in monitoring ethnic trends in the U.S., there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King restaurants combined.

The melting pot that is America has had a natural effect on the menu preferences of American kids — and choices being made by young Americans have obvious implications on the grocery purchase behavior of American adults.

According to ACNielsen Homescan data, families with children aged 12 and under account for 32 percent of all dollars spent on prepared Mexican dinners.

Although not nearly as popular with younger American consumers as Hispanic offerings, a similar trend can be seen among select Asian food products. Forty-four percent of the dollars spent on Ramen noodles, for instance, come from families with children 12 and under.

Indeed, the trend in supermarket ethnic food sales mirrors the United States’ changing ethnic makeup. In today’s America, the fastest-growing ethnic market is Hispanic. While Caucasians still make up the majority (66 percent of the population), that number is down considerably from 1990 when it was 72 percent. In fact, three states — Hawaii, New Mexico and California, as well as the District of Columbia — have “majority minority” populations (that is, more minorities than single-race, non-Hispanic whites), and Texas is very close to joining that group.

It should come as no surprise, then, that tortillas are the nation’s second-largest bread product (behind white bread), and that salsa outsells ketchup. But it’s important to understand that the trend toward ethnic food is not just coming from ethnic consumers. According to New American Dimensions, 75 percent of ethnic food spending comes from the mainstream, not the ethnic group from which that food is derived.

The good news for us all is that as this younger and more ethnically food-diverse generation become adults, every menu — even fast fooderies including McDonald’s and Burger King — will have to start offering more tasty alternatives to their standard fare.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .