Promises of healthier kids’ meals have drawn increasing numbers of families back to fast food restaurants, but most kids are still being served unhealthy options, a new survey finds.
Nine out of 10 parents had purchased lunch or dinner for their child in the past week at one of the big four fast food chains in 2016, up from 8 of 10 parents in 2010, the results showed.
This increase was driven in part by fast food claims that they’ve replaced sugary sodas and greasy french fries with healthier options in kids’ meals, said lead researcher Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives for the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
But children are still dining on kids’ meals full of fat, sodium and calories, with no sign that the healthier options are making much of a difference, Harris added.
“It’s a marketing tactic on the part of these restaurants to make parents think their products are healthy,” Harris said. “If they can make parents think it’s actually a healthy choice to take their child there, then it’s good for their business. That’s what we found, even though what kids are getting really hasn’t changed.”
Since 2013, the four largest fast food restaurant chains — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway — have introduced policies to offer healthier drinks and sides with their kids’ meals, Harris said.
To see whether these policies have made a difference, the Rudd Center conducted an online survey with approximately 800 parents regarding lunch or dinner purchases at one of the big four chains.
Published Sept. 27, the Rudd survey found that 74 percent of kids still receive unhealthy drinks or side items with their kids’ meals when they eat fast food:
- Only 6 out of 10 parents who purchased a kids’ meal received a healthier drink such as low-fat milk or fruit juice, indicating no change between 2010 and 2016.
- Two-thirds of parents chose a healthier drink for a preschool-age child (2-5), on average, but only half chose a healthier drink for an older child (6-11).
- Half of parents received a healthier side with a kids’ meal in 2016, such as yogurt or apple slices. However, 6 out of 10 received an unhealthy side like french fries or chips, since some restaurants now offer two sides with kids’ meals.
The healthy-option policies have made a difference in one critical way, however.
Nearly all of the parents said they plan to purchase fast food for their child more often because of restaurants’ healthier kids’ meal policies, researchers found.
“When you ask parents about that, they think it’s great that kids’ meals are healthier now,” Harris said. “But there really hasn’t been any change.”
About one-third of parents didn’t even bother with a kids’ meal for their children. They purchased regular menu items, which include adult-sized portions and tend to be less nutritious than kids’ meal items.
The Rudd Center argues that policymakers should follow the lead of communities in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Maryland, where laws or regulations have been adopted to require that all restaurants automatically provide healthy drinks and sides with kids’ meals.
Restaurants can help by promoting healthier choices and discontinuing the practice of offering unhealthy sides alongside healthier sides, the Rudd Center added.
But parents also need to step up, said registered dietitian nutritionist Malina Linkas Malkani, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Until there is more widely enacted legislation that requires the restaurants to automatically offer these healthy choices, the responsibility falls pretty squarely on parents and caregivers to make the healthier choices and to teach their children how to make those choices for themselves,” Malkani said.
Parents should teach kids to avoid foods heavy in added sugars, sodium and saturated fat, Malkani said. They also should promote foods rich in protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, healthy fats and vitamin C.
Malkani said it was “disheartening to hear the high percentage of children who received the less healthy beverages and sides, but I did think it was good news that there are healthier beverages and sides available.
“I have to give so much credit to the chains that are offering the healthier choices automatically. I hope this is a trend that takes off,” she said.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about healthy fast food choices.