Kids’ Menus: Still Horrible For Kids

The average meal tops 1,000 calories, even at restaurant chains that pledged to be healthier

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Jan 21, 2017 at 10:16 AM ET

Much like a college boyfriend or girlfriend, fast food restaurants are great at saying they’ve changed, all while staying exactly as unhealthy for us as ever, especially it comes to the kids’ menu.

Harvard University researchers looked at the nutritional value of more than 4,000 menu items sold at 45 of the top 100 chain restaurants, advertised as part of their children’s menu, over a four-year period from 2012 to 2015. Whether it was the total calories, level of sodium, fats or sugar, they found no sustained nutritional improvements in the average menu item, from drinks to dessert. Worse still, the same was true of the 15 chains that had pledged to clean up their act by voluntarily joining the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program in 2011.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in January, may help explain our inability to drive down still-growing rates of childhood obesity, given that more than one-third of children eat at fast food restaurants every day.

“Results suggest little progress toward improving nutrition in children’s menu items,” the authors concluded in their paper. “Efforts are needed to engage restaurants in offering healthful children’s meals.”

A child who ordered an average meal (drink, entrée, side dish and dessert) in 2015 would chow down on 1,007 calories, they estimated, slightly less than twice the amount recommended per meal for a 4- to 8-year-old by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And amazingly enough, it would be 1,034 calories at the average LiveWell chain.

The study isn’t the first to explore how kids’ menu items haven’t changed much in recent years, despite pressure; a 2015 study of 29 chain restaurants came to a similar conclusion. And others have found a similar gap between promises and reality in the standard adult-sized restaurant fare. Restaurants included in the current study included everything from fast-casual chains like Chipotle to sit-down full service places like Applebee’s.

The Kids LiveWell program was intended to expand the number of healthy items like yogurt or salad available on the menu, and there are currently some 150 chain restaurants enrolled in it. But while there were some subtle differences between LiveWell and non-LiveWell chains, any nutritional improvements in the average menu item seen from 2012 to 2014 had largely disappeared by 2015. And although restaurants like McDonalds have also removed soda as the default drink option, to much acclaim, the study revealed that 80 percent of drink items in 2015 were still sugary sweet beverages, actually a slight uptick from 2012. In many cases, restaurants simply replaced soda with fruit drinks, flavored milk, and sport drinks options.

The findings can’t tell us what kids and their parents are actually ordering at the counter, but it seems unlikely that any substantial budge in improving kids’ nutrition will come from politely asking restaurants to add some healthy snacks as a menu option. Much more effective strategies might include convincing restaurants to serve fruits and vegetables as a default side, or actively changing standard items to be healthier in the first place, the authors suggested.