NUTRITION
October 1, 2018

Chains Retreat from Healthier Kids' Meal Options

Fast food chains said they'd improve the nutritional quality of kids' meals, but that hasn't happened.

The restaurant industry's promises to offer healthier options in their kids’ meals is not happening, a new report finds. It appears that, once again, it's up to parents to watch what their kids eat when they eat out.

In 2010, the four largest fast food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Subway — committed to offer healthier beverages and sides with kids’ meals and leave the sugary soda option off their menu boards. Six years later, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found big differences in the way restaurants implemented these practices.

Fast food restaurants have an opportunity and a responsibility to do more to promote healthier options for kids. It's also good business.

Today, kids are still getting sugary sodas and French fries with kids’ meals, and restaurants are still promoting these unhealthy options on menu boards and in advertising. Healthier sides and drinks are available In some restaurants, but they are not promoted and not automatically included as part of kids’ meals.

“While most fast-food restaurants do have healthier kids' meal drinks and sides available, many do little to make parents aware of the healthier options or to encourage parents to choose the healthier options instead of unhealthy ones. If restaurants are serious about children's health, they will make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for parents and the most appealing choice for children,” Jennifer Harris, of the UConn's Rudd Center and lead author of the report, said in a statement.

Children are eating fast food more often, the report also found. In 2010, 79 percent of parents reported purchasing fast food for their child’s lunch or dinner in the past week; that number rose to 91 percent in 2016, with McDonald’s being the most commonly visited fast food outlet. The authors attribute the rising popularity of fast foods to a combination of factors: their low cost, convenience, easy access and an increase in fast food advertising aimed at children.

The report also found:

  • Parents like the healthier kid’s meal policies and would choose a fast food restaurant that served healthier kids’ meals more often.
  • A third of parents purchased a less-healthy, adult-sized regular menu item, not a kid’s meal for their children, regardless of the child’s age.
  • Half of children who were given a kid’s meal got a healthier side item, and nearly 60 percent got a healthier beverage, such as 100 percent juice, low-fat milk or water.
  • Parents purchased healthier options for children who were 2 to 5 years old more often than they did for older kids, ages 6-11. They were also more likely to purchase only a kids’ meal for younger kids than for older kids and to choose a healthier drink for younger kids than older ones.
  • Some fast food restaurants (Dairy Queen and Subway) now provide desserts with kids’ meals or offer a dessert instead of a toy (Burger King), adding extra fat, sugar and calories to a child’s meal.
  • Fast food restaurants have an opportunity and a responsibility to do more to promote healthier options for kids. It's also good business. The report makes clear that parents would choose to eat at restaurants that offer healthy options more often. Offering kid-friendly, healthy options is a marketing opportunity these restaurants are ignoring.

    According to Harris, fast food restaurants can start by automatically having healthier beverages and sides come with kids’ meals instead of making parents have to ask for them. They can also create healthier main dishes for their kids’ menus.

    Parents can take control and make their voices heard until fast food establishments up their game. Don’t accept the default items when ordering a kids’ meal. Ask for healthier options — apple slices, fruit cups, low-fat milk, yogurt, 100 percent juice or just plain water. For young children, order the smaller-portion kids’ meals, not the items meant for adults.

    You can read the full report online.

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