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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 youth population.

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 contain fruit.

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 chains."

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' menus.

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 awful.

The magazine reported considerable change in recent years because most restaurants recognize a need to offer healthful menu items along with indulgent ones.

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 foods.

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 instead?

(For more on foodservice, see the July 19, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)