More on Children’s Menus: An Interview with Anita Jones-Mueller of Healthy Dining

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 13, 2013

kids live wellBack in July, 2011 I told you about Kids Live Well, a program created by the National Restaurant Association to improve the often-dismal offerings on most chain restaurant children’s menus.

But in late March of this year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a damning report which found that 97% of the restaurant children’s menus surveyed still failed to meet CSPI’s nutritional criteria,with items like chicken nuggets, soda, burgers and fries continuing to dominate most chain restaurant kids’ meals.

I thought it might be interesting to hear from the restaurant industry about CSPI’s findings, so I contacted Healthy Dining, the organization whose registered dietitians worked with the National Restaurant Association to develop the Kids Live Well program and who validate qualifying menu choices.  Anita Jones-Mueller, President of Healthy Dining, agreed to speak with me and here is our interview:

TLT:  Children reportedly consume 25% of their daily calories at restaurants, so clearly the offerings on children’s menus can have a real impact on the health of our kids.  That said, on a philosophical level, do you feel it’s the responsibility of the restaurant industry to provide healthful offerings, or do you feel it’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure a child eats well while dining out?

 AJM: I think it takes both: Restaurants generally can’t keep healthful items on the menu if they don’t sell, and if healthful choices aren’t offered on menus, it makes it really hard for parents to reinforce the healthy eating habits they are teaching at home. I think we are in a very exciting time of change right now. More than ever before, our company, Healthy Dining, is seeing the number of restaurants dedicated to offering healthful menu choices growing. And as important, the demand by parents and children for healthier choices is growing, too. So we are thrilled to see such positive change on both sides … which can make a big difference for our nation’s kids and future generations. So that is exciting change!

TLT:  Almost two years after the National Restaurant Association announced its Kids Live Well initiative to improve children’s menus, CSPI’s has issued a new report indicating that nearly all of the kids’ meals at America’s top 50 chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality, with 97% of meals failing to meet CSPI’s own nutritional criteria and 91% failing to meet the Kids Live Well nutritional criteria. What do you make of this finding?

AJM:  It is not accurate to say that nearly all the kids meals are of poor nutritional quality based on the fact that they didn’t meet CSPI’s criteria. That is very strict criteria which is not appropriate for many children because every child has varying needs for the amounts of calories and other nutrients, based on age, size, physical activity levels, etc. For instance, any meal that has more than 430 calories was included in the “97%.” I know that after a gymnastics practice, my daughter, who is in a continual growth spurt, needs more than 430 calories for dinner. So having more than 430 calories doesn’t mean her meal is of poor nutritional quality, and in fact, the calories could be packed with nutrients that she needs to grow and learn and thrive. So I think the way the results of the study were messaged was very misleading. Also, the sodium criterion of no more than 770 mg. further restricts a lot of otherwise healthful menu choices. For example, a turkey sandwich with provolone cheese on whole grain bread can add up to 850 mg. of sodium because the bread, turkey, mustard, cheese and pickle slices all contain sodium. So even though I consider the turkey sandwich a very nutritious meal for my kids, it would be included in the “97%.”  Other healthful kids items such as teriyaki salmon or BBQ chicken generally don’t fit the sodium criterion. Personally, I don’t focus as much on the nutrition numbers for my kids, but more so I teach them about always including healthful ingredients in every meal and snack. So I want them to look for lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats on the menus. My philosophy is that if the plate has primarily healthful ingredients, then the nutrition numbers will all average out over the course of the day or week. And that also leaves room for occasional desserts, pizza parties, birthday parties and other fun parts of life. I really like the MyPlate icon because it is easy to apply to every meal.

I respect CSPI for their efforts in trying to improve public health, and I think the major take-away from the CSPI study is that there is room for improvement in kids’ meals served at restaurants. Our nation’s kids should be treated to the wonderful flavors of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein as often as possible. And I see that such improvement is happening! I am so impressed with how quickly the Kids LiveWell Program is growing. Healthy Dining’s team worked together with the National Restaurant Association to launch the Kids LiveWell program in July, 2011.  Since then, it has grown from 19 participating restaurant companies to more than 130 companies, spanning more than 40, 000 locations all over the nation … and growing every week! Healthy Dining’s dietitians consult with each restaurant that signs up for the Kids LiveWell Program and they tell me all the time how rewarding it is to hear the chefs’ excitement and dedication to creating and offering the Kids LiveWell choices.

TLT:  It’s important to note that only 11 of the 50 chains studied by CSPI are participants in the Kids Live Well program (only 10 of which were studied because one didn’t offer nutritional data).  But that said, only 11% of the children’s meals from those ten chains meet the Kids LiveWell standards.  Do you feel that’s a sufficient level of compliance?  

AJM:  I think there are a few things to consider: 1) New restaurants are joining the Kids LiveWell Program all the time. So rather than focusing on whether that is enough, I think it is best to reinforce the efforts of those restaurants that are leading this effort. If the participating restaurants find that the Kids LiveWell choices are popular with kids, that will spur them to create and offer more Kids LiveWell choices. And that will also spur more restaurants to join the program. 2) Restaurants are telling us that they are working to revamp their kids meals and add healthier choices. And the reality is that this can take time. They tell us that they don’t want to serve choices that kids don’t like, so they are investing time and money into developing new items. So again, I think that reinforcing the efforts of restaurants that are offering healthier kids choices now is the first step. You can find all the participating restaurants on HealthyDiningFinder.com. Also, telling your favorite restaurants that healthful choices are important to your family is a great way to get more restaurants involved.  3) The CSPI study only looked at the large chains, and many of the restaurants that have joined the Kids LiveWell Program are smaller chains and neighborhood eateries which weren’t counted in the CSPI report. That is an important advantage of the Kids LiveWell program: restaurants of any size can join the program, and Healthy Dining’s dietitians will work with them to identify ways they can offer healthful choices.

TLT:  Are there plans in the works to encourage participating Kids Live Well chains to make more of their kids’ menu offerings healthier or otherwise improve compliance?

AJM: I think that is where parents have power. The more restaurants hear from their guests that healthier options are important, the more they will want to meet those requests. So as a parent, let your favorite restaurants know that healthier choices are important to you, and show restaurants by ordering the healthier choices that are featured on HealthyDiningFinder.com. That also helps us to inspire more restaurants to join the Healthy Dining Program. Some of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry right now in large part focus on health and nutrition, which means that restaurants are leading those trends, and others will surely be following soon. The National Restaurant Association’s 2013 studies show the top culinary nutrition-related trends include healthful children’s choices, local sourcing,  whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lower-sodium, lower calorie and smaller portions. So this is all good news for those of us who to eat out and want to enjoy high quality, healthful meals!

TLT:   How do you feel about mandatory nutrition disclosures on children’s menus to help parents make smarter choices?

AJM:  Right now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is finalizing the federal menu labeling provision. That provision will require all restaurant companies with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calories on menus and menu boards and have additional nutrition information (fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, etc.) available within the restaurant setting. Some regions, like the states of California and Oregon, and cities, like Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City, have already implemented some type of menu labeling legislation.  I live in California, so we are used to seeing calories on the menu. Again, I think it is really important to teach kids to look for the healthful components of a meal and not just rely on the calories. For instance, my daughter was looking at a menu board at a Mexican quick service restaurant. She said she wanted the taquitos (fried rolled tacos). I kind of winced and said “that’s fried and it just comes with rice.” And she said, “It’s the one lowest in calories.” I was happy that she was looking at the calories and wanted to make the best choice, so that opened the conversation to talking about how some of the other items, which were higher in calories, were also higher in nutrition value and ultimately wiser choices. So she ended up ordering the soft chicken tacos with corn tortillas, black beans and side salad: more calories but much higher in nutrients.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about CSPI’s report and/or the Kids Live Well program?

 AJM:   Yes, we all know it is important to be a good role model as a parent. So of course we can’t order the fries and expect our kids to have the broccoli. HealthyDiningFinder.com features dietitian-approved menu choices for the whole family, so that everyone can dine out as a delicious part of a healthy lifestyle. The site also offers lots of education and inspiration about nutrition through blogs, article and recipes . I have dedicated my career to helping restaurants offer healthier choices. I have always believed that if we can get restaurants excited about applying their culinary creativity and artistry to creating healthful choices, that will bring an exciting dimension to healthy eating. And in the last few years, I feel like we are really seeing that starting to evolve. Restaurants are an important part of life, and I look forward to continuing to inspire healthy change.

Thanks for including me in your blog, Bettina!

* * *

And thanks to Anita Jones-Mueller for allowing me to interview her on TLT today.

So, TLT readers, what do you think about the current offerings on most children’s menus?  Do you feel you’ve seen any meaningful improvement over the last two years?  Do you rely on kids’ menus when you dine out with your own children?

And for some good strategies for healthful restaurant dining with kids, here’s a nice piece from Real Simple on that topic.  Thanks to Sally of Real Mom Nutrition for posting this on Facebook a while back!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Woldow May 13, 2013 at 9:28 am

“Everyone can dine out as a delicious part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Hmmm, almost the exact words that the beverage industry used to explain to consumers that drinking soda daily can be “part of a healthy lifestyle.” That always makes me wonder – which part exactly would that be? The part where we stop thinking about health, or nutrition and just focus on the immedaite gratification of consuming empty calories? Just saying….

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Nutri-Link Technologies May 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Sometimes when I am not feeling up to a full meal, I’ll see if I want to order from the kids menu and I notice more often than not that the kids menu is 1 of 3 items: chicken finger, grilled cheese and french fries, leaving me to pick an appetizer or a soup/half a salad at most places.

Kids menu offerings are so poor, how can we lead by example when our only options are chicken fingers and fries to give them?

Nutri-Link Technologies
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nutri-Link-Technologies/385554151526910?ref=hl

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Sophie May 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I go out to eat with my 5 year old son often and my tactic is ALWAYS to split something with him from the adult menu and NEVER order from the kids’ menu. Just the idea of a kids menu ‘dumbed’ down to the lowest common denominator of the ubiquitous pizza and fries is insulting and does nothing to teach kids how to eat as adults.
The resturant industry has the right to craft whatever marketing agendas they want, but it IS up to the parents to know what is in the best interest of their kids and put their money where their mouth is. The commercial interests will then fall in line with the consumer’s direction.

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mommm!!!! May 20, 2013 at 8:35 am

I agree with this. And we rarely ordered off the child menu while dining out. I’d rather let my kid take home whatever he didn’t eat at dinner when the adult portions were too large for him. I remember once when we were out, my kid complained about not being able to order off the kids menu and I told him he wouldn’t like it. Well, he wouldn’t give up and continued to piss and moan about it so I let him. He ordered off the hot dog, hamburger, cheese pizza, chicken fingers menu and I don’t even remember what he got. When it arrived the look on his face made me laugh so hard. And then he tasted it and he was thoroughly disgusted and promptly sent it back. Of course, I took the opportunity to say, “Told ya. Neener.”

The only thing the kids menu is good for is coloring on with the free crayons and even that often only last a few minutes. I’m glad I’m past this stage in my kid’s life being that’s he’s now too old for the kiddie carnival food menu. I no longer have to fight with food servers about actually serving my kid an adult meal, fight with my kid about a dried up chicken finger, or fight with the establishment about substituting fries for a salad. And I don’t envy those of you still mired in the eating out kid menu debacle.

It’s funny that you say “The commercial interests will then fall in line with the consumer’s direction.” because I feel the same way….often I feel like the only one saying it. Funny story Olive Garden story real quick….
I detest this restaurant, but my kid loves it…or did….so I take him there when he’s done something really great as a reward. short of the long….our table was literally surrounded by families with young kids. Of course, my kid ordered one of those complicated dishes that has three different things on it, rather than the noodles and sauce on the kiddie menu. When it was served to him, it took all of about ten minutes for the other kids to notice what he was eating and start asking questions….”Was that on the kids menu?” “Why can’t I have that?” “Daddy I don’t want this…I want what he’s eating.” I mean, we nearly caused an Olive Garden kiddie mutiny over it. But it was amazing to me see so many light bulbs go on….like suddenly the kids became aware that they didn’t HAVE to order off the crappy kids menu. I have to wonder if the parents ever let those kids try the adult items after that. I hope they did. I’ve over heard a parent or two in my lifetime force a kid to order off the kid menu as well. That’s depressing.

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Elle May 19, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Bettina thank you so much for doing this interview and sharing it with us.

@Anita, thank you for agreeing to this and being honest and open.

I agree with you that it is important for parents to be good role models for their children. If a child sees their parent constantly reaching for chips or cupcakes and completely bypassing the fresh fruits and vegetable then chances are that is what their children will do.

Children learn about the world through what they observe and experience. If they see their parents eating healthy and serving nutritious food, that is what the children will learn to do.

They can then pass those lessons on to their children.

We all need to lead by example.

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