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The Search for Healthy Kids Meals

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family eating in restaurantThis guest post was written by Sarah Sliwa, instructor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

One-third of U.S. children across all demographic and socioeconomic groups eat at quick-service restaurants on a given day. Eating in restaurants has been associated with higher consumption of calories and sodium, and lower diet quality overall. Given how frequently children eat in these venues, restaurants have an opportunity to play a major role in improving kids’ diet quality by offering healthier meals.

And, we wanted to explore that potential impact. So, we looked at leading quick-service (QSR) and full-service (FSR) restaurant chains to see whether their children’s meals met national recommendations set by KidsLive Well for calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. These recommendations align with the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines and other expert recommendations. We chose the top ten QSR and FSR chains that had separate children’s menus and posted nutrition information online. Using meal descriptions and the restaurants’ nutrition information, we calculated the calorie, fat, saturated fat, and sodium content for all possible children’s meal combinations.

The results were mixed. The good news is that more than half of meals in FSRs, and nearly three-quarters of meals in QSRs, met the USDA recommendation for calories in kids’ meals (600 calories or less). But we also saw room for improvement. Just 32% of kids’ meals at QSRs and 22% at FSRs meals met all of the nutrition recommendations for calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. The results were particularly poor when it came to sodium: 54% of kids’ meals at QSRs and 62% at FSRs exceeded the recommended maximum of 770 milligrams.

Some restaurants are making strides toward offering healthier kids’ meals, however. The Silver Diner, a regional FSR chain near Washington, DC, changed its children’s menu in 2012 to remove soda and fries (although they could still be requested), provide fruit or vegetable side dishes by default, and increase the number of meals that met Kids LiveWell nutrition criteria.

In another related study, researchers studying these changes found that both revenue and orders of healthier options increased after the new menu was introduced—a win-win for the customer and the restaurant. These positive changes were still in effect when the researchers went back two years later, which suggests a long-term shift in ordering patterns.

Everyone has a role to play in providing healthier meals for kids. Restaurants can offer and promote healthy options that are appealing to children, remove sugary drinks from their children’s menus, and pair kids’ meals with healthy side dishes by default. Meanwhile, parents can educate and guide their children toward healthy choices, and speak up to demand healthy meals where they don’t exist. Tools like the Healthy Dining Finder or the KidsLive Well mobile app are two good places for parents to start.

To learn more about the studies discussed in this post, visit ChildObesity180.org/healthymeals.

Sarah Sliwa headshotSarah Sliwa, PhD is an instructor at Tufts University.

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The American Heart Association’s blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.