Study: Restaurants Set Kids Up For Lifetime of Unhealthy Eating

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Based on an 18-month study conducted by the Rand Corporation, 96% of main entrees sold at top U.S. chain eateries exceed the daily limits for calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat recommended by the USDA.

The study claimed entrees at family-style restaurants on average have more calories, fat and sodium than fast-food restaurants. And entrees at family-style eateries posted 271 more calories, 435 more milligrams of sodium and 16 more grams of fat than fast-food restaurants.

Additionally, many drinks offered on kids’ menus have more fat and saturated fat on average than regular drinks. The median number of calories in kid specialty drinks, such as shakes and floats, was 430, compared to regular menu drinks which had 360 calories.

In a more recent study, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) worked with a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina at Asheville to analyze 3,498 kids’ meal combinations from 41 top chain restaurants; 34 chains provided nutrition information for those meals.

The CSPI report [pdf] found that fried chicken fingers and nuggets, fries and soda are the most common items offered to children, and some kids meals contain more than 1,000 calories and are high in sodium and fat.

“This is really disappointing,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for CSPI. “Restaurants should be doing better.”

Wootan says children are getting about 25% of their daily calories from fast-food places and other restaurants, and consumption of restaurant food is associated with higher calorie intake and poorer diet quality.

“Restaurant children’s meals are one of the reasons that kids think their food should be chicken nuggets, pizza and hamburgers with a side of fries and a soda,” she says.

“It defines what they think of as kids’ food, and most of these meals are the opposite of what they should be learning to eat. These meals set them up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.”

Additional Study Findings:

– 91% of kids’ meals at those chains do not meet the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell menu standards, a voluntary initiative. It recommends healthy kids’ meals have 600 calories or less, get 35% or less of their calories from total fat and total sugar, have no more than 770 mg. sodium, and also meet other nutrition criteria. The standards emphasize lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole-grain and low-fat dairy products.

– Nine of the top chain restaurants, including McDonald’s, do not have a single kids’ meal that meets the Kids LiveWell standards.

– 50% of the kids’ meals had more than 600 calories.

– 78% of the chains offer soft drinks as a children’s beverage option; 58% offer fruit juices; 40% offer fat-free or 1% low-fat milk; 43% offer high-fat milk (2% or whole).

– 83% serve fried chicken entrees for kids’ meals, such as chicken fingers or nuggets; 35% serve grilled chicken; 65%, hamburgers.

– 73% of kids’ menus offer fried potatoes such as French fries and potato chips; 53% offer veggies other than fried potatoes with children’s meals; 68% offer fruit. The most common choices: apple slices, applesauce, fruit cups, mandarin oranges and grapes.

Worst Kids’ Meals

– The Center for Science in the Public Interest names these as some of the worst kids’ meals in terms of calories and other nutrients:

Applebee’s grilled cheese on sourdough bread, fries, and 2% chocolate milk, 1,210 calories.

Chili’s pepperoni pizza with homestyle fries and soda, 1,010 calories.

Denny’s Jr. cheeseburger and french fries (beverages are not included with kids’ meals), 980 calories.

Ruby Tuesday’s mac ‘n cheese, white cheddar mashed potatoes and fruit punch, 860 calories.

Dairy Queen’s chicken strips, kids’ fries, sauce, Arctic Rush (a frozen drink), and Dilly Bar, 1,030 calories.

“Kids LiveWell” program

From the report:

Eleven of the chains participate in the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Kids LiveWell program. To participate in the Kids LiveWell program, restaurants must offer at least one full children’s meal and one other individual item that meet the NRA standards, display or make available upon request the nutrition profile of the healthful menu options, and promote/identify the healthful menu options.

Among the 10 Kids LiveWell participating restaurant chains that provide nutrition information, only 11% of the children’s meals from those chains meet the Kids LiveWell standards. To make the program effective, the requirements for participation must be strengthened by increasing the overall number.

Healthy Options For Kids

USA TODAY’s Nanci Hellmich points out that various registered dietitians have selected some nutritious restaurant meals for kids from popular chains that are participating in the Kids LiveWell program.

The meals emphasize lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grain and low-fat dairy products, have less than 600 calories and meet other specific nutrition criteria.

Note: Calories are rounded.

– Applebee’s: Grilled chicken sandwich, broccoli, and 1% milk, about 360 calories.

– Arby’s: Junior roast beef sandwich, apple slices and low-fat white milk, 330 calories.

– Burger King: Kids Meal Hamburger with BK fresh apple slices and fat-free milk, 380 calories.

– Chick-fil-A: 4 piece grilled chicken nuggets with fruit cup and 1% low-fat milk, 220 calories.

– Chili’s: Grilled chicken platter, steamed broccoli and orange juice, 320 calories.

– Corner Bakery Café: Pasta marinara served with a side of fruit medley and low-fat milk. (Analysis does not include dessert selection.), 460 calories.

– Denny’s: Build Your Own Jr. Grand Slam with scrambled egg whites, two slices of turkey bacon, hash browns and orange juice, 360 calories.

– Friendly’s: English muffin and egg sandwich. Scrambled egg whites and American cheese on a large toasted English muffin served with apple slices. Analysis includes water for choice of beverage, 390 calories.

– Outback Steakhouse: Joey sirloin medallions with broccoli and 100% apple juice, 330 calories.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper