Most children’s meals at large chains remain unhealthy, group says

03/29/2013 8:30 PM

05/20/2014 10:41 AM

Fried chicken fingers, hamburgers, french fries and sugar-filled drinks still dominate children’s menus at the nation’s chain restaurants, according to a new report by a nutrition advocacy group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s new report found that 97 percent of children’s meal options at the nation’s largest chain restaurants do not meet its nutritional criteria for 4- to 8-year-olds. That’s only slightly better than when the center did a similar study in 2008, which found that 99 percent of restaurant meals offered for children failed to reach its standards.

The organization also noted that 91 percent of the meals in its latest survey didn’t meet the nutritional standards set by the restaurant industry’s own trade group, the National Restaurant Association.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the consumer group, said one out of every three American child is overweight or obese today. But she said most restaurant chains are still stuck in a “time warp,” serving up the same old children’s meals.

“I’m really disappointed to see how little progress restaurants have made. If only 3 percent of the meals are healthy, then for parents to find a healthy meal is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said. “If a restaurant only has one healthy meal on the menu — say grilled chicken and apple slices — and your child doesn’t like that, then you are out of luck. And half of the restaurants didn’t have a single healthy option.”

The consumer group called out several chains in particular.

Kansas City-based Applebee’s was cited for a children’s meal of grilled cheese on sourdough, fries and 2 percent chocolate milk, totaling 1,210 calories with 62 grams of fat, 21 grams of saturated fat and 2,340 milligrams of sodium. That’s nearly three times as many calories and three times as much sodium as the group’s criteria allow for that age group.

Applebee’s said its menu is all about choices. The consumer group’s report focused on one of Applebee’s sandwiches, but the chain said it also offers options that have “significantly” lower calories, fat and sodium. Those healthier options meet the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program.

They include a children’s grilled chicken sandwich with a side of steamed broccoli and apple or grape juice, a meal that totals only 355 calories. Applebee’s also says it plans to expand the number of options on its children’s menu by the end of the year.

The consumer organization also cited a Denny’s children’s meal of a cheeseburger and fries, which has 980 calories, and Dairy Queen’s chicken strips, fries, sauce, Arctic Rush frozen drink and a Dilly Bar, coming in at 1,030 calories. Officials with Denny’s and Dairy Queen could not be reached for comment Friday.

At 19 chains, the group said, it couldn’t put together a single combination of three items offered for children that would meet its nutrition standards. At nine of those chains, including McDonald’s, the children’s meals didn’t meet the Kids LiveWell standard, according to the organization.

But some chains are making the research group’s grade.

All eight of Subway’s “Fresh Fit for Kids” meal combinations meet the Center for Science’s nutrition criteria. Additionally, Subway does not offer sugar drinks as an option in its children’s meals, only low-fat milk or bottled water. Still, the consumer group would like Subway to increase the whole grain content of its breads and continue to lower sodium.

Les Winograd, a spokesman for Subway, said the chain had lowered sodium content by 25 percent across the board at its U.S. locations in the last few years and is looking at more whole grain options.

Healthier children’s menus are a top trend this year for both full-service and limited-service restaurants, according to surveys.

More than 120 restaurant brands participate in the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, which was launched about 18 months ago. Under the program, more fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy are offered and promoted. The participating restaurants also limit fats, sugars and sodium.

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