Many of the top fast food chains have made their kids' menus a little healthier, offering better-for-you sides and making pledges to nix soda as the default drink. But even though these moves please most parents (and make the restaurants look better in the public eye) it may not be translating into healthier kids.
A new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut says that most kids are still getting unhealthy sides and sugary drinks at fast food chains—and kids are eating fast food more often too.
Fast food chains like McDonald's have rolled out healthy sides like apple slices, mandarin oranges, and yogurt. Many have also pledged to take soda off the kids' menu or at least offer healthier drinks such as milk, bottled water, and 100 percent juice. According to the report, which surveyed 800 parents of children ages 2-11, three-quarters of parents said these kinds of healthier kids' meals policies made them feel more positively about a fast food restaurant. Parents also said they were more likely to purchase food from fast food places that had healthy options.
But the report reveals that a lot of kids aren't actually getting these better-for-you options. Forty-one percent of parents who order a kids meal get an unhealthy drink and 61 percent receive an unhealthy side.
What's happening here? For one, parents may not think their kids (especially older kids) will like the healthier choices. Parents were more likely to opt for the healthier sides for younger children compared to older ones.
Another issue is that the fast food chains who made these promises may not be holding up their end of the bargain. According to the researchers, though restaurants like McDonald's and Burger King pledged to phase out listing soda on the menu for kids, one-third of restaurants still list them.
Whether workers actually offer healthier drinks and sides to customers who order kids meals varies too. For instance, at Burger King, healthier sides are offered just eight percent of the time—and not only were fries automatically given with 90 percent of kids' meal orders, servers offered free dessert instead of a free toy to 41 percent of parents.
More bad news from the report: The number of kids eating fast food for lunch or dinner in a given week jumped from 79 percent in 2013 to 91 percent in 2016. McDonald's was the most frequently visited by the parents surveyed. Past research has found that one-third of kids eat fast food on any given day.
Eating fast food is linked to poor diet quality in kids, say the researchers. Days when fast food is eaten tend to mean more sugar, saturated fat, and sodium and less milk, fruit, and veggies (besides French fried potatoes!).
The researchers say nearly all items on fast food kids menus have too many calories, and too much saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. Less than one percent of kids meal combos (main dish + side + drink) meet basic nutrition standards.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the new book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.