Nutrition group criticizes restaurant kids' meals. (Getty Images )
Ninety-one percent of thousands of children’s meals at the biggest restaurant chains don’t meet standards set by the National Restaurant Assn.’s own initiative for healthful kids’ meals, a study out Thursday from a nutrition advocacy group says. And nine chains have no meals that meet those standards, the study says.
The trade group’s standards are voluntary, and it notes that among the participating chains, there are more than 340 healthful kids’ items on menus.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest did find some “good news” in its study: Nearly half the chains offer at least one healthier meal, said Ameena Batada, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who conducted the study. And, she said Thursday at a news conference, about three-quarters of the restaurants offer fruit or vegetables.
But CSPI pointed its finger at many choices, and called out some, including: A grilled cheese sandwich with fries and chocolate milk at Applebee’s has 1,210 calories, 46% fat and 2,340 milligrams of sodium -- three times as much as the CSPI standards suggest. A pepperoni pizza, fries and soda at Chili’s has 1,010 calories, including about as much saturated fat as an adult should eat in a day, CSPI says. And the Denny’s cheeseburger and fries has 980 calories.
“One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it’s as if the chain restaurant industry didn’t get the memo,” CSPI’s nutrition policy director, Margo Wootan, said in a statement. “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.”
CSPI looked at children’s menus of 34 of the top 50 restaurant chains (Nine of the 50 didn’t have dedicated children’s items and others didn’t have sufficient nutritional information.) and created every possible combination of a three-item meal, for a total of 3,498. It assessed those meals by the restaurant association’s Kids LiveWell program and standards it came up with for 4- to 8-year-olds based on federal dietary guidelines. The two standards are similar;, including a limit of 35% fat and 35% sugar . But the restaurant group’s criteria allow a limit of 600 calories and no deep-fried items. CSPI has a 430-calorie limit with no drinks considered unhealthful.
Under the CSPI’s standards, 97% of the possible meals did not meet the guidelines, the study says.
All eight of the kids’ meals at the Subway chain met the CSPI criteria. It is the only chain studied that doesn’t offer sugar-sweetened drinks with children’s meals, CSPI said. It offers milk or water.
The National Restaurant Assn. issued a statement about the report.
“Restaurants nationwide are providing innovative, healthful children’s options to their young guests,” including through the Kids LiveWell initiative, Joy Dubost, the group’s director of nutrition and healthy living, said.
The 18-month-old program has more than 120 restaurant brands, she said.
Seven in 10 restaurants offered fried potatoes; about half offered another vegetable, CSPI said. And 68% sold fruit as a side dish. Three-quarters offer soft drinks on kids’ menus.
Marina Delio, a Santa Barbara mother of two and author of a new book called “The Yummy Mummy Kitchen,” said both restaurants and families need to do a better job.
“I definitely cannot believe how bad the restaurants are doing, but I think parents need to be educated more too,” she said.
She suggested making one-dish meals such as a pot of vegetable chili, which is cheap and fast, and appealing to children.
When her family eats out she doesn’t ask her children whether they want items from the children’s menu. Instead, she gives them healthful choices. At 3 and 5, they’re small enough to split a single entrée.
The Washington-based CSPI regularly issues reports critical of fast-food, snack food and beverages and other aspects of the food industry. It is known for calling out food items it considers especially unhealthful.
Among the many reasons for obesity, Wootan noted at the news conference, is eating out.
“When I was a kid, eating out was a special occasion,” she said, adding that more than 40% of food dollars are spent in restaurants today. “Nutrition matters a lot more than it used to.”
Noah Gray, a Maryland eighth-grader who was one of the three young people on the most recent season of “The Biggest Loser,” also spoke at the news conference.
“Eating out is one of the hardest things to do,” Noah, 13, said. “There’s not really any good choices.”
“Restaurants are beginning to think about healthier meals,” Wootan said. “We need the majority of choices on children’s menus to be healthy so parents have a fighting chance at finding items their kids will like and eat.”
Wootan suggested the restaurants stop offering sugar-sweetened beverages to kids and offer less fried food and more produce. (In the U.S., most sodas are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, rather than sugar; they are nearly the same chemically.)
CSPI noted parents have a financial incentive to order from children’s menus. Wootan said chains could offer more produce, grilled items and other nutritional improvements at the same price points.
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