Chain restaurants are not known for serving up healthy kids’ meals. Most entrees on a kids’ menu are either fried, breaded or doused in cheese. Fresh fruits and vegetables are rare side dish options, and French fries abound.
Looking at nutritional content alone, some drinks could easily be mistaken for candy. For example, one serving of “Sharks in the Water” – a blue raspberry soft drink sold at Friendly’s – has more than an entire day’s worth of added sugar.
With options like these, it isn’t surprising that kids who eat more restaurant food have worse diets than other children.
In recent years, restaurants have vowed to change up the menu and offer healthier choices for kids. But our analysis of the nutritional content of more than 4,000 children’s menu items from across the country shows that, despite the promises, kids’ plates still look much the same.
Promises to change
Despite the health risks, kids eat at restaurants all of the time. In fact, kids eat restaurant food nearly as much as they eat at home.
This is due, in part, to the amount of money restaurants spend encouraging kids to buy their products. Restaurants advertise directly to kids by offering action figures from the movie “Frozen” or Hot Wheels cars. They host birthday parties in indoor play areas. Dora the Explorer, Lebron James and Michael Phelps promote restaurant food on billboards and through television advertisements and social media campaigns.
Each year, the restaurant industry spends nearly one-quarter of its advertising budget on tactics that directly target children. This spending seems to have paid off: one-third of kids and over 40 percent of teens eat fast food each day.
There is increasing political pressure on restaurants to offer healthy kids’ meals. Michelle Obama was one of the first prominent political leaders to demand change, as part of her Let’s Move! campaign. In 2010, the first lady petitioned for healthier kids’ food in a speech to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the nation’s largest food service trade organization. She asked that these healthy options be heavily promoted and easy for parents to find amid the macaroni and cheeses, chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches that have dominated children’s menus for decades. A self-professed “fry lover,” the first lady even pushed restaurants to offer healthier defaults. For example, restaurants could automatically include fruit and vegetable side dishes with kids’ meals and serve French fries only when specifically requested.
The NRA quickly responded to this call to action by creating Kids LiveWell. Kids LiveWell sets nutrition standards for kids’ meals that restaurants can voluntarily adopt. To participate, restaurants must offer at least one kids’ meal and one other item that meet the program’s nutritional goals. For example, a piece of grilled chicken served with broccoli would likely meet these requirements, while fried chicken with French fries…