Since 2013, fast food restaurants have been making grand promises to reduce the amount of unhealthy food advertised for and offered to their younger patrons. McDonald’s vowed to remove their soda advertisements that were directed at children, and offer only water, milk or juice as part of their Happy Meals. KFC shortly followed suit, creating the Li’l Bucket Kids Meal, featuring green beans, applesauce and water. The following year, Subway joined in on the efforts, claiming changes to their kids’ menu would only feature items that reflect strong nutritional guidelines. Dairy Queen, Wendy’s and Burger King soon after made similar pledges to focus on healthier options for the kids. But how effective has this been?
As of 2016, none of the chains’ websites listed sugary or unhealthy drinks on their kids menu, adding one healthier drink option and one healthier side to the menu. “At least now there is an option to get something that’s lower in sugar and calories for your child than you could before,” said director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center, Jennifer Harris. “A lot of parents go to fast-food restaurants because it’s convenient, so if you’re going to do that, at least you can get something healthier for the [children].”
However, despite the more visible united front created online, there proved to be discrepancies in what these chains were offering at their storefronts. Only 8% of restaurant staff at Burger King and 22% at Wendy’s actually offered healthier sides for their kid’s meals. McDonald’s was more successful, with 100% of their staff offering healthier side options. However, Happy Meals always come with two sides, and french fries were typically added as the second option automatically.
“They have added the healthier options… but they are not really encouraging parents to purchase those options when they’re in the restaurants,” continued Harris. She believes that the healthier drink and side options should be the default in the kids’ menus, and unhealthy options should be kept off the menu.
In the years following these changes, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut lead a study to test if these changes did, in fact, lead to improvement in children’s fast-food consumption. The study collected responses from anonymous caregivers to determine what choices were being made, despite the menu changes. The study found that only about half of the participants that bought kid’s meals for their family chose a healthier drink and/or side. These caregivers were much more likely to buy the healthier option for children aged 2-5 rather than those 6 or older, and female caregivers were more likely to select the healthier meal options than male caregivers.
It is suggested that offering the healthier options on the menu isn’t enough to lead someone to make that choice. Similar efforts that are put into marketing and recommending the unhealthy options should be made for the healthier choices as well. “Restaurants must improve the nutrition quality of all items offered in kids’ meals and do more to encourage selection of those healthier options inside the restaurant,” Harris said. “Simply removing soda from the kid’s meal menus will not reduce children’s consumption of other unhealthy fast-food menu items, and it may not increase selection of healthier drinks either.”
Being able to avoid fast food all together is a luxury not every family has. The time and cost efficiency make it an ideal quick meal that can satisfy your family without breaking the bank. However, the health and needs of our children are crucial — especially in a time where technological entertainment is on the rise, limiting the amount of exercise our kids get in their day-to-day lives. It is up to us as consumers to know the healthier options and select them, despite what may be advertised or recommended in the moment.