The new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on kids’ meals shocked me. First, I was surprised to learn that of the 3,498 meal combinations in restaurant chains evaluated by the authors of the report, 97 percent do not meet nutrition standards for children’s meals.
Then, I was a bit ashamed to be reminded that I’m also one of these parents feeding their kids these unhealthy meals. Not that I expected that my 5-year-old daughter’s favorite kids’ meal, which includes chicken fingers, French fries, orange juice and ice cream will somehow meet the standards, but nevertheless, it was a reminder of the low nutritional quality of her choice.
The importance of the report stems from the hard-to-believe statistics that children in the U.S. consume, on average, 25 percent of their daily calories at fast food and other restaurants. This figure helps connect the dots between the fact that one out of every three American children is overweight or obese and the report’s finding that “most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries and soda,” as CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan explains.
The authors examined children’s menu items and meals at the 50 largest chain restaurants in the U.S. and analyzed the nutritional quality of all possible children’s meal combinations. For example, a hamburger, fries, and soft drink were considered one possible combination, while a hamburger, fries, and low-fat milk were considered another one. In total, they looked at 3,498 meal combinations across the 34 restaurant chains that offer children’s meals and provide sufficient nutrition information for analysis.
The different combinations were assessed against two sets of nutrition standards. The first, developed by a panel of nutrition and health experts, included criteria like calories (no more than 430), fat (no more than 35 percent of calories), sodium (no more than 770 mg), added sugar (no more than 35 percent), and so on. When it comes to beverages, soft drinks, fruit drinks that contain less than 50 percent real fruit juice, high-fat milk and other unhealthy drinks for children were assessed as being of poor nutritional quality. In all, 97 percent of the combinations assessed didn’t meet this set of standards.
The second set of standards was the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Kids LiveWell standards. It is similar to the first standard with respect to total fat, saturated fat, and sodium allowances. The major difference between the two is the calorie allowance (430 calories per meal compared to 600 calories, respectively). In this case, 91 percent of the combinations assessed didn’t meet this set of standards.
So what we can learn from this report? Here are some of the main lessons:
Too many calories
While the reasons for not meeting the standards vary, 86 percent of meals have more than 430 calories (the expert standard) and 50 percent of meals have more than 600 calories (the Kids LiveWell standard). Just to give you some perspective, the authors mention that based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, children ages 4 to 10 years should consume between 400 and 670 calories per meal, depending on their age, gender, and physical activity levels.
Too many soft drinks
I have no idea why restaurant chains need to offer 4 to 8-year-old kids the option of a soft drink, but 78 percent of them do it, compared to 58 percent that offer fruit juices or 40 percent that offer low-fat milk. I doubt many of these restaurants also remind parents that “soft drinks and fruit drinks are the biggest single source of calories and added sugars in the diets of children.”
The worst restaurant chains
If you want to use this report as a guide for where not to take your children to eat anytime soon, note that nine restaurant chains didn’t meet any of the standards with any of their combinations, including McDonald’s, Popeye’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dairy Queen and, somewhat surprisingly, Chipotle. Ten more chains didn’t meet one of the standards, including Panera, KFC, and Ruby Tuesdays.
The best place for kids’ meals
Would you guess it’s Subway? According to the report, all eight of Subway restaurants’ Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI’s nutrition criteria. Subway is also the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugar drinks as an option with its kids’ meals.
Too little progress
CSPI last reviewed the nutritional quality of kids’ meals at chain restaurants in 2008. Then, just one percent of kids’ meals met CSPI’s nutrition standards, compared with three percent in 2012. I’m not sure if we could even call it progress.
Whose responsibility is it anyway?
The authors provide a list of recommendations for restaurants on how to improve their performance and hopefully some chains will listen. Yet, we need to remember that parents also have responsibility – first, to demand better meals and second, to ensure their kids’ meals are healthier.
If a restaurant offers only soft drinks with the kids’ meal, ask for orange juice or apple juice instead, or just water and don’t forget to mention that you’ll be glad to see healthier options in the menu. I promise you that if enough parents (myself included) will demand it, changes will come eventually.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.