Restaurant kids meals are dangerously unhealthy

Despite efforts to the contrary, unhealthy food options continue to proliferate on restaurant kids menus.
Despite efforts to the contrary, unhealthy food options continue to proliferate on restaurant kids menus. Dana Neibert

Despite Michelle Obama’s eight-year-long Let’s Move! campaign that sought to combat childhood obesity and impart a healthy eating credo in kids, chain restaurants across the U.S. still serve up menu options that exceed the recommended calories for a daily meal. And Canada isn’t faring much better.

WATCH BELOW: Canadian kids exposed to millions of ads every year for processed food

Canadian kids exposed to millions of ads every year for processed food
Canadian kids exposed to millions of ads every year for processed food

In a 2016 study published in the journal BMC Nutrition, researchers found that both fast food and sit-down chain restaurants across Canada served kids meals that exceeded the daily sodium intake for children aged four to eight, and the saturated fat levels counted for 10 to 13 per cent of total calories from fat. (The American Heart Association estimates that percentage should range from five to six.) Currently, 27 per cent of Canadian children aged two to 17 are overweight or obese.

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While America’s National Restaurant Association (NRA) implemented the Kids LiveWell campaign in 2011 at the behest of the first lady, Canada has no such program in place.

“Restaurant owners and operators in Canada take the health and nutrition of their customers seriously, and continuously respond to customer demand by introducing healthier options and alternatives for adults and children alike,” Joyce Reynolds, executive vice president of government affairs for Restaurants Canada said. “To meet customer needs, many restaurants make it easy to access nutritional options.”

She goes on to say that more restaurants are replacing soft drinks with milk and juice, and offering salads and seasonal vegetables as sides for kids’ entrees.

For its part, the American program is a marked step in the right direction: it sets nutrition standards that require at least one healthy meal option on a kids menu. It’s a voluntary program, however, so participation is entirely up to the restaurant or chain.

Since the program launched, more than 150 restaurant chains in over 42,000 locations across the U.S. have joined, including Applebee’s, Friendly’s and Outback Steakhouse. However, according to The Conversation, an academic news site that analyzed data from 45 top-earning chain restaurants, the calorie, sodium and saturated fat counts in kids meals barely budged between 2012 and 2015.

The problem, they estimate, is that oftentimes, the one healthy option on the menu is dwarfed by a slew of other dishes that are much more tantalizing to young palates.

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“A kids menu from Applebee’s — one of the early restaurants to join Kids LiveWell — reveals one grilled chicken entree alongside chicken tenders, a corn dog, mini cheeseburgers, and macaroni and cheese,” the article states. “It’s hard to imagine the grilled chicken standing a chance.”

The first step, the article says, should be targeting the sugary drinks that proliferate on their menus. Although soda offerings declined from comprising 30 per cent of beverage options on kids menus to 23 per cent between 2012 and 2015, they were largely replaced with sugary teas, sports drinks and flavoured milks.

Experts suggest that many of these changes won’t be enacted unless parents take a stand against the restaurant industry. But it’s already difficult for parents to get their kids to eat well — never mind when they’re faced with options as attractive as cheeseburgers and french fries.

Elke Sengmueller, an Ontario-based registered dietitian, says there are tactics parents can employ to get kids to make better choices in restaurants without creating a scene.

“Take a look at the menu before going to the restaurant and decide in advance that there are three options your child can choose from on the menu,” she says. “It gives your child a sense of control over what they can order, and it gives you the power to zero in on healthier options. This will also prevent them from lingering over a menu and getting caught up in the emotion of that.”

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She also advises being more proactive about introducing them to different foods, instead of always defaulting to kid-friendly staples.

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“Kids will accept all kinds of flavours,” she says. “If you look at all the cultures in our society, children are exposed to and eat a wide variety of flavours, textures and spices. We know they’re adaptable and will try new things if they’re hungry and inspired.”

To that end, Sengmueller advises seeking out ethnic restaurants for family meals, instead of the standard sit-down chains. Japanese and Indian restaurants are much less fast-food-like in their options and offer more healthy varieties. She also says to look for places that build a meal around vegetables and whole grains, and those that offer shrunken portions of adult entrees that provide a balance of protein, grains and vegetables.

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