Kids Meals Get an “F” in Nutrition at Chain Restaurants
Nearly all of the meal possibilities offered to kids at America’s top chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality. A report released today found that fried chicken fingers, burgers, French fries, and sugar drinks continue to dominate kids’ meal setting, with 97% of the nearly 3,500 meal possibilities not meeting CSPI‘s nutrition criteria for 4- to 8-year-olds.
And if you don’t believe CSPI, ask the National Restaurant Association (NRA): 91% of kids’ meals at America’s major chains do not even meet the nutritional standards of the industry lobbying group’s Kids LiveWell program.
One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it’s as if the chain restaurant industries didn’t get the message. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention” and addressed these health concerns for further research and studies to use in the fight against childhood obesity.
Two-thirds of adults and almost one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, representing young and old, urban and rural, and majority and minority populations. This epidemic of excess weight is associated with major causes of chronic disease, disability, and death. Obesity-related illness is estimated to carry an annual cost of $190.2 billion.
Most chains seem stuck in this time warp, serving the same dated meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries, and soda. I know that they can come up with healthier, cost-effective, nutritionally beneficial meals that are more current than these.
One chain that has gotten the message is Subway. All eight of Subway restaurants’ Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI’s nutrition criteria. Subway is the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugar drinks as an option with its kids’ meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water along with apple slices with all of its kid-sized subs.
“Our goal has always been to provide the most nutritious, balanced kids meals in the industry and we are proud to be recognized by CSPI for achieving that goal,” said Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for the Subway brand.
To meet the CSPI’s nutrition criteria, kids’ meals must be at or below 430 calories, no more than 35% of calories from fat, or no more than 10% of calories from saturated plus trans-fat. Meals that meet CSPI’s criteria cannot have more than 35% added sugars by weight or more than 770mg. of sodium. The criteria require meals to make a proactive nutritional impact either by providing at least half a serving of fruit or vegetable, including an item that is 51% or more whole grain, or including specified levels of vitamins or fiber. CSPI’s criteria exclude sugar drinks in favor of water, juice, or low-fat milk. The NRA’s standards are quite similar, though they allow more calories.
Here are some of the least healthy kids’ meals available at chain restaurants:
– Applebee’s Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries and 2% Chocolate Milk has 1,210 calories with 62g of total fat (46% of kcal), 21g of saturated fat (16%), and 2,340mg. of sodium. That meal has nearly three times as many calories, and three times as much sodium, as CSPI’s criteria for four-to eight-year-olds allow.
– Chili’s Pepperoni Pizza with Homestyle Fries and Soda has 1,010 calories, 45g of total fat (40% of kcal), 18g of saturated fat (16% of kcal, and about as much saturated fat as an adult should consume in an entire day), and 2,020mg. of sodium.
– Denny’s Jr. Cheeseburger and French Fries has 980 calories, 55g of total fat (50% of kcal), 20g of saturated fat (18%) and 1,110mg. of sodium. Denny’s does not include beverages with kids’ meals.
– Ruby Tuesday’s Mac ‘n Cheese, White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes, and Fruit Punch has 860 calories, 46g of total fat (48% of kcal) and 1,730mg. of sodium. Ruby Tuesday’s does not disclose saturated or trans-fat content on its menus or website.
– Dairy Queen’s Chicken Strips, Kids’ Fries, Sauce, Arctic Rush (a Slushee-type frozen drink) and Dilly Bar has 1,030 calories, 45g of total fat (39% of kcal), 15g of saturated fat (13% of calories), and 1,730mg of sodium.
At 19 chain restaurants reported on, not a single possible combination of the items offered for children met the CSPI’s nutrition standards. Out of these restaurants, 9 (that included McDonald’s Popeye’s, Chipotle, and Hardee’s) not a single kids’ meal met the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell standards. At Wendy’s, only 5% of 40 possible kids’ meals met the CSPI’s standards. Most of these items were either too high in sodium or saturated fat. At Burger King, just 20% of the 15 possible kids’ meals met CSPI’s criteria.
The last time the CSPI reviewed the nutritional quality of kids’ meals at chain restaurants, in 2008, it is reported that these restaurants have made little progress. In 2008, just 1% of kids’ meals met the CSPI nutrition standards, compared to only 3% in 2012. Only one-third of the chains had at least 1 meal that met the nutritional standards in 2008. This number scaled to 44% in 2012- good, but not great improvement.
While the CSPI report recommends that companies consider several changes, it also encourages the chains to participate in the NRA’s Kids LiveWell program. For these restaurants to do so, they would need to restructure their kids’ meals to meet these standards. The bottom line is that these restaurants should offer more fruits and veggies, and to offer these fresh options as an alternative side to French fries. Whole grains should be offered more, as well as removing soda or other sugar sweetened beverages from the kids’ menus. And just because Subway was the only chain restaurant to meet CSPI’s criteria for all kids’ meals, it should increase the whole grain content of its breads and continue to lower sodium.
The long-term problem I see in this article is that the chain restaurant industry is conditioning children to accept a really narrow range of food options. More chains are adding fruits and veggies at this point, but realistically- a lot more could offer these options. And given the childhood obesity epidemic that America is currently attempting at combating- you would think that more restaurants would want to take action in the health of their future consumers.