Restaurant Kids' Menus Still Not Healthy

A study conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found lots of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar in menu offerings for children, despite restaurant owners' pledges to improve the nutritional quality of kids' menus.

Feb. 13, 2017
By Stav Dimitropoulos

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About five years ago, the American National Restaurant Association teamed up with Healthy Dining to cre­ate the Kids LiveWell pro­gram. To imple­ment the objec­tives of the Kids LiveWell ini­tia­tive, 42,000 restau­rant loca­tions nation­wide com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing fam­i­lies with a grow­ing selec­tion of health­ful children’s menu choices when din­ing out, with the menus requir­ing that at least one meal and one other item on the menu fall under proper nutri­tional guide­lines.

A study con­ducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, how­ever, found no sub­stan­tial health improve­ments in the menu offer­ings. What is more, the amount of sugar in bev­er­age options for chil­dren appeared to be alarm­ingly high.

The new study was pub­lished in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and was the first of its kind to exam­ine trends in the nutri­tional con­tent of children’s meals among US restau­rant chains, at a time when many were tran­si­tion­ing towards health­ier menu choices.

The researchers employed data acquired from the nutri­tion cen­sus MenuStat, and looked into trends in the nutri­ent con­tent of 4,016 bev­er­ages, main courses, side dishes, and desserts offered on children’s menus in 45 of the nation’s top 100 fast food, fast casual, and full-ser­vice restau­rant chains between 2012 and 2015. Out of the total num­ber of restau­rant chains, fif­teen were Kids LiveWell par­tak­ers.

It was found that nei­ther group showed sub­stan­tial improve­ment in the num­ber of calo­ries, sat­u­rated fat, or sodium in menu offer­ings for chil­dren over the first three years after the launch of the Kids LiveWell project in 2011. Children’s desserts had almost as many calo­ries and roughly twice the amount of sat­u­rated fat as the main course, while the aver­age children’s entree far exceeded rec­om­men­da­tions for sodium and sat­u­rated fat.


In addi­tion, eighty per­cent of children’s bev­er­age options were sug­ary drinks, and this even though indi­vid­ual restau­rants had vowed to grad­u­ally cut them out. The study also showed that when­ever restau­rant own­ers excluded soda from the menus, they tended to replace it with fla­vored milk and sweet­ened teas.

This study high­lights the impor­tance of mon­i­tor­ing restau­rant com­mit­ments over time, both to hold the indus­try account­able to their pledges, and to assess whether fur­ther improve­ments are made down the road,” said to Olive Oil Times lead author Alyssa Moran, a doc­toral stu­dent in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School.

Asked why no actual progress has been made regard­ing the qual­ity of kids’ menus, Moran answered that this is mainly an account­abil­ity issue. To par­tic­i­pate in Kids LiveWell, restau­rants are only required to offer one meal and one other item that meet cer­tain nutri­tional require­ments. Although this is a step in the right direc­tion, restau­rants can get credit for par­tic­i­pat­ing by mak­ing only very min­i­mal changes.

Modifying the pro­gram to require that all kids’ menu items meet nutri­tional stan­dards, and offer­ing guide­lines for healthy bev­er­ages would likely have a big­ger impact. With that said, many of the restau­rants chains in our study have thou­sands of loca­tions nation­wide and may just be slow to adopt vol­un­tary pledges, rather than resis­tant to change. Kids deserve foods that taste good and pro­vide the nutri­ents they need to grow and develop into healthy adults, and restau­rants are in a great posi­tion to make those types of foods avail­able,” con­tin­ued Moran.

The sci­en­tist also stressed that there needs to be more col­lab­o­ra­tion between chefs, food­ser­vice exec­u­tives, and nutri­tion sci­en­tists to come up with inno­v­a­tive, finan­cially viable solu­tions, cit­ing a pro­gram called Menus of Change, which was cre­ated by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health, and which seeks to do just that.

Local gov­ern­ments can also play a role in con­nect­ing restau­rants with pub­lic health experts. In Philadelphia, the Department of Public Health worked with Chinese take-out restau­rant own­ers to reduce salt in their foods by pro­vid­ing train­ing from pro­fes­sional chefs and by work­ing with dis­trib­u­tors to offer lower sodium ingre­di­ents,” the lead author of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study reported.

These types of pro­grams can work, espe­cially if restau­rants feel there is a demand for health­ier options from their cus­tomers. So, there’s also a role for par­ents to play, in telling restau­rants they want health­ier options for their kids!”


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