America's restaurants are tasked with being watchdogs for children’s health
by Christina DiMartino | July 15, 2010
The obesity rate among children in North America continues to spur media,
organization and government attention. Data reports, newspaper and
magazine articles and survey results -- now backed by first lady Michele
Obama's goal of educating the public on the need for kids to get and stay in
shape -- are riddled with the consequences of an overweight and unhealthy
In 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine issued a report stating
that the prevalence and severity of obesity are so great, especially in children,
that the associated diseases and complications, such as Type 2 diabetes,
heart disease, kidney failure and cancer, are likely to strike people at
increasingly younger ages. In fact, for the first time in history, the average
life span of today's American children is expected to be shortened by as much
as five years.
Fast-food restaurants whose menu items have historically been high in fat
and sugar and low in nutrition have suffered much of the blame for these
statistics. The fast-food trend escalated at a time in history when both
parents entered the workforce, leaving little time to prepare meals at home.
These restaurants served up tasty, cheap and quick meals, making it easy for
parents and kids alike to become enamored with meals consisting of fried
chicken nuggets, burgers and fries. This newly emerging child palate inspired
restaurants of all categories to add these or similar items to their kids' menus.
During the past decade, foodservice operators, including the fast-food
chains, whether out of good conscience, the need to stave off negative media
or pressure from health-related and children's organizations, began heeding
the call for healthier menu items. Salads and fruits started appearing on
menus at quick-serve chains, and family-style restaurants began offering
items that featured more produce and baked (rather than fried) foods. But
according to reports, not enough is being done, or fast enough.
In 2004, the Center for Science in the Public Interest surveyed 20 of America's
biggest table-service chain restaurants that offer kids' menus. All but one
offered french fries, and 85 percent offered burgers.
"Many parents appreciate the kid-friendly atmosphere and free crayons, but
not many would expect adult-sized calorie counts in a children's meal," Jayne
G. Hurley, the center's senior nutritionist, said in the report. "These chains
should be encouraging kids to eat some of the healthy dishes they offer
adults, but instead their kids' menus primarily feature oversized portions of
burgers, fries and fried chicken fingers. Kids then expect that kind of junk
food at school and at home."
Things had not improved much by 2008, when the center issued another
report stating results of an investigation into the nutritional quality of kids'
meals at 13 top restaurant chains. It stated that nearly every possible
combination of children's meals at five major chains were too high in
calories. Ninety-three percent of 1,474 possible choices at chains surveyed
exceeded 430 calories - an amount that is one-third of what the Institute of
Medicine recommends that children aged four through eight should consume
in a day.
In 2009, Mintel Menu Insights, which tracks restaurant trends, said that the
average kids' menu doesn't offer enough variety or healthy food, even as
parents, kids and chefs alike call out for better options.
Mintel analyzed kids' menus from 2005 to the present, and it noted the same
clichéd foods repeated year after year. Chicken fingers steadily account for 10
percent of kids' menu items, followed by grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni
and cheese and burgers. Despite increasing health and obesity concerns,
other top kids' menu items included hot dogs, pizza and corn dogs.
In Mintel's report, Maria Caranfa, a registered dietician and director of Mintel
Menu Insights, said, "Our research shows parents want more nutritious
options for their kids, and children are open to fruits, veggies and healthier
versions of standard fare. The generic kids' menu really doesn't meet the
needs and desires of today's families."
Of those surveyed, only three in 10 parents said that their children eat
healthfully at restaurants. But Mintel found that contrary to what their
parent's said, more than three in four children said they were open to
ordering foods with vegetables, and six in seven would order items that
In one analysis, Technomic, a leading foodservice industry research, study
and consulting company, noted that parents -- moms in particular -- face
growing pressure to provide healthy meals for their children. At the same
time, parents are using restaurants to satisfy needs of convenience. Moms
need restaurants to provide convenient meals that are also healthy and great
tasting. Many consumers -- African-American and Asian consumers in
particular -- view negatively restaurants that do not offer healthy kids items.
This perception could prevent roughly one-third of consumers who hold
these strong sentiments from repeating a visit.
"As restaurants continue to vie for share of stomach in this increasingly
competitive market, it is critical to understand what attracts and what
discourages customers," Darren Tristano, executive vice president of
Technomic, told The Produce News. "Something as simple as providing a few
healthy kids' menu options or substituting one fried entree for a baked entree
can put parents' minds at ease, helping them feel sensible by visiting a
restaurant that considers the health of their child."
Mr. Tristano added that the ability to develop menu offerings around a local,
organic or natural culinary focus is a trademark of independent concepts that
operate in the higher-end, fine-dining realm.
"Parents who value these attributes in food are beginning to steer their
children away from mac-and-cheese and chicken-finger entrees in favor of
fresh seafood, baked or grilled chicken, organic vegetables and premium cuts
of meat. This trend has notable trickle-down potential for the top 250
Sometimes it takes a little nudging to get restaurants to move a bit faster,
such as when the media recognize those that are doing a better job with kids'
For the past 14 years, Restaurant Hospitality magazine has been doing just
that with its Best Kids' Menu in America contest. Editors created the
competition because they felt most kids' menus in America were simply
The magazine reported considerable change in recent years because most
restaurants recognize a need to offer healthful menu items along with
Winners of the award in the past few years include California Pizza Kitchen,
Friendly's and Kabuki Restaurants.
In 2008, Parents magazine published a story titled Healthy Kids' Menus.
Reviewers surveyed 40 restaurant chains and found that while soda, fries and
nuggets are staples, there were also some nutritious options, including fruit,
salads, milk and broccoli. It also boldly listed the names of six top chains that
refused to be surveyed.
It may take a lot more of these types of stories, more pressure from child and
nutritional organizations and continued education from the likes of Ms.
Obama for restaurants to improve their kids' menus by adding more healthy
Creating a healthy kids' menu should make parents want to return to a
restaurant frequently. Considering items like grilled instead of fried foods,
fruit cups and salads, steamed vegetables, baked potatoes and some healthy
ethnic foods, like spinach enchiladas or chicken stirfry, should help, too. Restaurants could also offer vegetable-topped pizza, side dishes like carrot
and celery sticks with yogurt dip, an apple-walnut salad or a fruit parfait.
Coloring books and placemats, give-a-ways and other gimmicks do attract
kids, as the toys inside boxed meals sold at quick-serve restaurants have
proven. Why not try awarding kids a prize when they order a healthy meal
(For more on foodservice, see the July 19, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)