A new report released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shines the spotlight on QSR kids' meals and exposes plenty of blemishes.
"One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it's as if the chain restaurant industry didn't get the memo," said Margo G. Wootan, CSPI nutrition policy director. "Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries and soda."
The report, titled "Kids Meals: Obesity on the Menu," includes an overview of the nutritional quality of kids' meals at the 50 largest chains in the U.S. It claims that children consume on average 25 percent of their daily calories at QSRs and other restaurants.
Figures from the report include:
- Of the top 50 chains in the U.S. by revenue, nine (18 percent) did not have dedicated children's menu items or meals.
- Of the 41 chains that do, 34 (83 percent) offered children's meal combos and nutritional information.
- Of the 3,498 meal combos, 97 percent do not meet nutritional standards for kids' meals and 91 percent do not meet the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell standards.
- Of the chains that offer children's meals, 56 percent do not have one meal that meets nutritional standards.
The report says "while the reasons for not meeting the standards vary, 86 percent of meals have more than 430 calories — the expert standard." The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that children between the ages of 4 and 10 should consume between 400 and 670 calories per meal. CSPI's standards skew on the low end of the calorie range because the average age of a kids' meal consumer is 6.
In addition to calories, another culprit in kids' meals is sodium. Sixty-six of meals studied exceed the suggested sodium standard. Buffalo Wild Wings' children's meal of mini corn dogs, french fries and milk contains the highest levels of sodium in the study, with 3,200 mg., or twice the recommended daily intake.
Fried chicken fingers, burgers, french fries, and sugary sodas continue to dominate kids' meals, according to the report. Of the 41 chains that have kids' items, 83 percent offer fried chicken entrees, such as chicken fingers or nuggets. Two-thirds offer burgers and half offer pasta/macaroni and cheese dishes.
As for side items, 73 percent include french fries or potato chips with their kids' meals. Just over half — 53 percent — have vegetables other than potatoes.
Some progress has been made
While many of these numbers fall short of recommendations, some improvements have been made to "healthy up" kids' meals since the CSPI's similar report from 2008. In the past four years, the percent of kids' meals that meet the expert nutrition standards increased from 1 to 3 percent.
Also, in 2008, one-third of the restaurant chains examined had at least one meal that met standards, while in 2012 that number increased to 44 percent. The percentage of meals that meet calorie and sodium limits has also doubled.
Although more QSR chains now offer sides such as yogurt and apple slices with their kids' menus, the percentage of fruit and vegetable options has only increased by 3 percent since 2008 (69 percent vs. 72 percent in 2012). More than half of the top chains now offer fruit juices and about 40 percent offer low-fat milk, however the majority still has soft drinks as a beverage choice.
Subway stands out as an exception
Of the 50 top chains examined, Subway was listed as the only one to meet both expert and Kids LiveWell standards for children's meals.
According to the report all eight of Subway Fresh Fit for Kids' meal combinations meet the nutrition criteria. CSPI also acknowledged that Subway does not offer sugary drinks as an option with its kids' meals, instead providing low-fat milk or bottled water along with apple slices with all of its kid-sized sandwiches.
"Our goal has always been to provide the most nutritious, balanced kids' meals in the industry and we are proud to be recognized by CSPI for achieving that goal," said Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietician for the Subway brand. "I know that it's not easy to get kids to eat things that taste great and include essential nutrients. Our menu can make both parent and child happy."
Some of the other QSR chains examined in the report include:
- Carl's Jr., which has 12 meal combos, none of which meet expert or Kids LiveWell standards. Like its sister chain, Hardee's, every kids' meal comes with french fries;
- Dairy Queen, with 108 meal combos, none meeting standards. The CSPI noted that all meals exceed calorie and sodium limits;
- McDonald's, with 12 combos, which includes french fries and apple slices in each meal. Notably, however, McDonald's recently reduced its Happy Meal french fry portions, which cut the calorie count by 20 percent.
- KFC has 130 meal combinations, 16 percent of which meet Kids LiveWell standards;
- Taco Bell has four combos, 50 percent of which meet Kids LiveWell standards. However, fruit punch is the only beverage option;
- Wendy's has 40 combos, 5 percent meeting standards. More than half of its options exceeded sodium and/or saturated fat recommendations.
The report's comments were less scathing for brands such as Chick-fil-A, which meets expert standards for 18 percent of its 72 kids' meal combinations. Chick-fil-A was the first chain to include grilled chicken nuggets as an option, however the CSPI noted it has many fried chicken options as well.
Burger King was recognized for belonging to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. McDonald's is the only other restaurant chain to belong to the CFBAI, which features companies that pledge to limit their marketing of foods to children to products meeting nutritional criteria. Arby's was also recognized for offering bottled water as an option for kids.
The CSPI report includes suggestions for restaurants trying to attract families who want healthier options. They include:
- Participation in the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program and reformulate all meals to meet all nutritional standards. The program, which was launched in the summer of 2011, quickly grew to include 110-plus restaurant brands.
- Offer more fruit and vegetable options and make them a default side dish. KFC, for example, rolled out a new kids' meal this week that includes green beans as a side dish.
- Remove soft drinks and other sugary drinks from children's menus. They are the biggest single source of calories and added sugars in the diets of children, according to the USDA.
- Offer more whole grains.
- Provide calorie information for all menu items on menus/menu boards. This will be a requirement for chains of 20 units or more when Obamacare legislation goes into effect.
- Market only healthy options to children through all platforms, including mass media, websites, in-school promotions, toy giveaways, school-related activities and more.
Read more about health and nutrition.
Photo provided by Joe_13.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.