Chain Restaurants Impact on Kids’ Meals and their Health

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.

CBS News Clip



This is a standard Subway Kids’ Meal option

The School Lunch Box Makeover

Lunch Box Makeover

Giving your child a nutritious lunch means more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown paper bag or Sloppy Joes in the cafeteria. Nowadays, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama and championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’sMove! initiative to end childhood obesity within a generation, schools are required to renovate their menus. This means more nutritious foods this school year because the standards went into effect July 1st.

That standards mandate that calories and portion size are aligned with children’s ages. Students will be offered fruits and veggies and only fat-free or low-fat milk every day of the week. There will be more whole-grain-rich foods. Saturated and trans fats, sugars and sodium will be limited.

Taking the Healthy Kids Act a step further, it is possible to incorporate these guidelines into make-at-home school lunches.

To provide children with a balanced meal during their scheduled lunch incorporating these food groups in your child’s diet:

–          Veggies

–          Fruits

–          Whole grains

–          1% milk or low-fat milk

–          Proteins (meats and beans)

A better alternative for typical lunch meat, you could consider making your own chicken salad or tuna salad sandwich with low-fat or light mayonnaise. Pre-packaged foods are typically high in sodium, refined sugar and saturated fat with low nutritional value.

Looking at the lunch box as a whole can help too. Substituting fruit and veggies for a sweet side could be a step in the right direction. Or even a smaller step, like packing 1-2 Oreos instead of 3-4 with a handful of grapes.

The key that a lot of teachers and healthcare workers are trying to emphasize to children is moderation. Setting an example is essential when dealing with younger children. When they see you loading up your plate with veggies for dinner and having fruit for dessert, they will follow suit. Limit the sugar-laden treats in the house. Parents can take the kids shopping so they can help choose their lunches. Then they can have them help prepare the meals.

As for drinks, schools are replacing full-fat milk with 1% or lower-fat options. Children may be able to buy milk even if they bring their own lunch. Beware of relying on juice boxes. Kids could get way too many calories this way.

The important thing here is to make sure that children aren’t eating too much sugar. Excess amounts of sugar are around every corner for children. You will find them in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Keep in mind that while 100% fruit juice is healthy, it also has a high amount of sugar. So an 8-oz. juice box or cup a day is fine but, 8 glasses of juice  day for a thirsty child is no bueno.

Just make sure that everyone remembers two important things when it comes to healthy beverages:

–          Use 100% fruit juice

–          Juice is not a substitute for water

After-school Choices

The school day can be a long one, depending on where your children are enrolled. Sometimes, the day starts at 7:30am or 8am, so lunch can be as early as 10am. This leads to hungry kids getting off the school bus who then must wait a few more hours for a family dinner.

A good breakfast with enough protein and healthy fats is imperative for tiding your kids over until lunch. If the school allows snacks, pack a few items.

If your family is on this type of schedule, making dinner for your children much earlier could be an easy solution. The kids can join Mom and Dad for dessert when they sit down for their meal, then ensuring some quality time at the dinner table.

If it’s impossible to make multiple dinners, or the kids have after-school sports and activities, provide healthy snacks to keep energy up before dinner. Ideas include trail mix, turkey and cheese rollups, a sandwich.

For those couch-potato kids who come home and plop in front of the computer or video games, getting them up and out the door is a key. Physical activity doesn’t have to be structured. Kids can just go outside and play before dinner. Parents really have to concentrate on both physical activity and diet for their children. Balance and healthy choices are important. Since a child is always growing, limiting food intake is not necessarily a good idea. However, healthy food choices are extremely important.

Here are some easy and nutritious lunch box ideas

Main Course:

–          Turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce

–          Chicken or tuna salad sandwich

–          Greek yogurt with fruit or nuts

–          Soup (low-sodium)

Whole Grains:

–          Bread (whole grain)

–          Crackers

–          Popcorn

–          Rice


–          Red pepper strips

–          Cucumber strips

–          Grape tomatoes

–          Dried plums

–          Hummus and veggies

–          Low-fat cheese sticks

–          Granola bar

Send Your Child to School with a Cool Lunch Box

Recently I read a new trend of parents buying their children Bento Boxes for their lunch box. The Bento Box originates in Japan and is originally designed for meals consisting of sushi pieces, sashimi, teriyaki, salad, and condiments. If these are used in school systems, it makes putting together a selection of nutritious foods, really easy. The box is portioned off so it’s easy to pack each compartment with a variety of meats, cheeses, fruits, and veggies. And children can easily decorate their Bento Box as creative as they want too!

This is an example of how Bento Boxes can be transformed into healthy school lunch boxes for children of all ages!