National Restaurant Association Announces Sweeping Initiative to Improve Children’s Menus

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 13, 2011

Here on TLT I’ve long decried the offerings on most children’s menus — an unimaginative array of salty, fried and fatty foods that seems to be the same at every restaurant, no matter what part of the country you’re in.  That’s why I was thrilled last fall when First Lady Michelle Obama scolded the National Restaurant Association for the poor children’s menu options at its member restaurants.

Well, it sounds like the restaurant industry was actually listening.

Later this morning the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining will announce a new “Kids LiveWell,” initiative to improve the offerings on children’s menus at over 15,000 restaurant locations around the country.  The first participants in the program include Au Bon Pain, Bonefish Grill, Burger King, Burgerville, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Chevys Fresh Mex, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Corner Bakery Cafe, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, El Pollo Loco, Friendly’s, IHOP, Joe’s Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, Silver Diner, Sizzler, T-Bones Great American Eatery and zpizza.

According to their press release, the voluntary program will require participating restaurants to:

  • Offer a children’s meal (an entree, side and beverage) with 600 calories or less; two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy; with limits on sodium, fats and sugar;
  • Offer at least one other individual item with 200 calories or less, with limits on fats, sugars and sodium, plus contain a serving of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein or low-fat dairy;
  • Display or make available upon request the nutrition profile of the healthful menu options; and
  • Promote/identify the healthful menu options.

USA Today gives further detail on the nutritional requirements.  Qualifying meals must have:

– 600 calories or less
And less than:
— 35% calories from fat
— 10% calories from saturated fat
— 0.5 grams trans fat
— 35% of calories from sugar
— 770 milligrams sodium

Examples of qualifying kids meals include Corner Bakery Cafe’s half turkey sandwich served on harvest bread, with a side of baby carrots, fruit medley and low-fat milk, and  Burger King’s breakfast muffin sandwich with fresh apple fries (slices) and fat-free milk.

Given that one-third of American children eat fast food every day (!), any plan to improve the offerings at those restaurants has to be met with initial praise, and experts and advocates such as Dr. David L. Katz, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, and Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have expressed support for the program.

But since the usual burgers, fries and pizza will still be offered to kids at these restaurants, it remains to be seen how well the healthier options are promoted; a turkey sandwich buried on a menu that highlights junk food is little more than a cynical PR move.   It also remains to be seen how enthusiastically parents (and kids) accept the new items.  I’ll share any follow-up reports here.

Meanwhile, to find a “Kids LiveWell” options in your own area, you can visit the “Kids LiveWell” section on www.HealthyDiningFinder.com.

 

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele Hays July 13, 2011 at 8:29 am

Hey, I’d just be happy if they offered smaller portions of anything on the regular menu.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 13, 2011 at 8:36 am

Michele – Me, too! I think in some cases (like a steak) it’s not economically feasible but I’ve long wanted to ask a chef or someone in the restaurant industry for details. If anyone reading this has the expertise, please chime in!

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Karen Frenchy July 13, 2011 at 9:34 am

Me too! Or just being able to share the plate with my 4YO daughter. The portions are so huge here.

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Kristin July 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I agree! We often split an adult meal between our two kids, or if they do order “kid food”, we order our sides of vegetables to share with them.

It seems to me that they could offer select adult menu items to kids by just listing “kids portion available – $X.XX” on the menu with that item, similar to when they put “side salad – additional $1.99″.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 13, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Kristin: Splitting the adult meal between two kids is usually the best option for us, too, but it presupposes that I can get my son and daughter to agree on the same entree. Not so easy! LOL! :-)

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David Foster July 14, 2011 at 8:02 am

Bettina, I missed your question from yesterday morning. You had said that you thought something was not economically feasible but wanted to ask someone in the restaurant industry. I am a restaurant consultant and have been in the industry for many, many years. Ask away!

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 14, 2011 at 8:28 am

Hi David! So glad you’re here!

Here was the question: A lot of parents, myself included, would like to avoid the children’s menus in restaurants (which usually offer only a lot of junk food) and instead let our kids eat from the adult menu. That can get both expensive and wasteful, however, and I’m always grateful when a restaurant allows half-orders of adult entrees for children. Most don’t do this, though, and I suspect it has to do with the economics of running a restaurant, but I’d love to know more. I can easily see why, in the case of a steak, for example, no restaurant wants to be stuck with an unused half-portion of expensive meat. But even with other entrees, is there a cost factor in serving split entrees that prevents restaurants from offering this option more often? Or is it just laziness?

Thanks for sharing your expertise!

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David Foster July 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm

There are a few restaurants that do this. Three challenges here: the age of the kids almost dictates that you have a “toddler/young children’s” meal with simpler, more familiar foods and then an “older kids” menu that could work well with small portions of the adult menu items. For many restaurants, having a menu that works for both age groups is simpler than actually addressing the differences in taste between younger and older kids. Another dynamic in play is that restaurants fear (and discourage) adults from ordering from the kids menu for themselves. Why? Often kids meals are priced almost as a lost leader and there is very little if any profit margin on them for the restaurant. TGI Fridays did a good thing with the “Right Portion, Right Price” section of the menu that allows adults to order smaller portions at a smaller price point – there is definitely a demand for that. The third challenge is that while parents want their kids to eat healthier, most parents are reluctant to order many of the healthier (and/or smaller portions of adult items) for their kids because they simply don’t want their kids to throw a fit in the restaurant. Making healthy choices for kids meals starts at home. If parents and kids find more healthy items they will eat there will be more demand when they are dining out. Restaurants will respond to the demand by adding more healthy choices to the menu. Kind of a vicious circle…but I do think that is what it will take to make it work. Without demand, restaurants will be less willing to make aggressive changes to their kids meals.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 14, 2011 at 9:00 pm

David: I hear what you’re saying. As you say, it’s a vicious circle in that restaurants offer what they think kids want (which makes sense from a business standpoint) but then kids never get a chance to break out of that rut. Yet I agree that if kids are not eating healthfully at home, the restaurant is NOT the place most parents want to start making changes. But for those of us who would like to maintain healthful eating while dining out, the options are quite limited. Sigh.

On a related note, what do you think of the National Restaurant Association’s recent move to improve kids’ menus at a variety of chains? Do you think it’s more of a PR move or do you think there’s real demand that will sustain and grow such a program?

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Jennifer July 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm

David…..I, like many parents do offer healthy choices at home and thus want the same thing when we dine out. My daughter really won’t eat the stuff on a “kids” menu. She is more likely to eat a crab/roasted red pepper/spinach dip than the mac & cheese. Often we just give her some of our own meals so she will eat since we are pretty much guaranteed to waste money and food if we buy a “kids” meal. For this reason, it would be nice if restaurants would offer the same menu items they offer adults, but in smaller portions. I would rather pay a little more for that meal than spend less and waste it all. And it is unlikely that a parent not offering healthy choices at home would try to force it on their kid at a restaurant.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 19, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Jennifer – This is just how I feel — I’d actually pay a premium to be able to get half-portions of adult food. But I do think we have to recognize that we may be in the minority. Clearly a lot of folks like a cheap kid menu option that is likely to please their child, and for many children, that’s the usual hot-dog-mac-n-cheese-burger-fries-pizza thing.

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Bri July 13, 2011 at 9:14 am

Bettina, I think I share your skepticism about the reception this move is going to get. I mean, I’m all for baby steps, so I’m happy that there’s SOMETHING in place. But let’s examine this.
1. Most of the restaurants listed are pretty questionable to begin with; if you’re apt to take your kids to Burger King, Friendly’s and IHOP, then you’re likely not too worried about what’s in the food they’re eating anyway — or you’re viewing that once-in-a-blue-moon visit as a “treat.” In either case, a parent who’s been routinely feeding their kids the Friendly’s double cheeseburger patty melt and conehead sundae, or whatever, is hardly going to start examining the menu and urging those kids to get the turkey sandwich with fruit; and a parent who lets the kids have that patty melt meal once a year on the family road trip as a treat isn’t likely to switch things up, either.
2) I always wonder: if the healthier items aren’t an instant success with huge sales, how much time will it take before the industry throws up its hands and says, “Oh well…we tried! Nobody wanted those things. Guess we don’t have to sell them anymore!” and away goes the regulation? I’m not usually a fan of the all-or-nothing approach, but in cases like this, is it better to eradicate the lousy choices and fill the menus with the positive stuff, creating a forced choice? (Probably not, since there’s a good likelihood that would lead to at least a temporary dip in business, I bet.)
No easy answers, that’s for sure, but a gold star for effort.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Bri: Lately I fear that my realism in the school food reform area has led me to be labeled by some as a whiny pessimist or a naysayer, which is not a comfortable position for me. And so when I was writing about these new menu changes I think I was unconsciously determined to be as upbeat as possible, and I only let myself express the teensiest bit of skepticism in the post.

But when I read your comment I was thinking, yes, yes, yes. Your analysis of who goes to most of these restaurants (die hards who are not terribly well informed or treat-seekers) strikes me as dead on, and I also had the thought that if the options aren’t ordered enough, the project might be conveniently tabled (as I think often happens in the school food reform world, too, with healthier entrees that kids are afraid to try.)

But still . . . as you say, we have to reward the effort and keep and open mind. It’s got to be better to have the turkey sandwich and apple slices available than not. And of course, some of these restaurants are frequented by more health-conscious folks for reasons of convenience and price and they may be overjoyed to be able to offer their kids healthier options.

Really interested to see what happens.

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Maggie July 13, 2011 at 10:29 am

Bri makes excellent points.

As far as it goes, we could all (adults as well as children) probably benefit if there were 2 different kinds of restaurants – those for “once in a blue moon” occasions (as Bri mentions) and those for “everyday meals”, serving the kind of meals we “should” eat and hopefully would prepare if we had the time, equipment, knowledge and so on. (I’m still coming to grips with the concept that there are people who don’t know how to cook & eat out virtually all the time. Sorry, don’t mean to sound rude about it, but just outside my experience.)

In any case, not something that’s likely to happen.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Maggie – I wonder, though. I think there’s got to be a growing market for the second category you dream of, offering healthier fast food. There are some chains that already fall into that category (or at least could if the patron makes sound choices.) I”m thinking of Chipotle, Jason’s Deli, and a few others. We’re a nation of restaurant goers, for better or worse, so it may just be a matter of time before the market really taps into the need you’ve identified.

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Kristin July 14, 2011 at 9:41 pm

I would **love** to have more fast food chains with a drive thru where I could get a healthy meal, fast. I often opt for places that I can go in and get something fast (Fresh City being our favorite, but there isn’t one super close by), but there are times where the kids are buckled in (maybe one is sleeping) and I need something quick. A drive through with a simple turkey sandwich/wrap, banana and milk/water. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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Nilam July 13, 2011 at 10:52 am

This is a step in the right direction. Now if only they could get the adult meals into reasonable calorie limits. There is more momentum and awareness about foods eaten away from home, so the more labels and information, the better it can be. With some experience in community nutrition teaching, I think adults want to make the right choices, and they often think they are, until they learn about the actual nutrition and calorie information at restaurants (including fast-foods). Hopefully, this will be utilized and not abandoned, and can pressure the restaurants to change their foods and provide healthier options. Twenty years ago, vegetarian and vegan dishes were rarely offered on menus.
If burgers and fries are going to be offered, why not make small modifications to make them healthier? Whole-grain buns, baked fries or offer another vegetable side?
Most restaurants accommodate meal-splitting/sharing, and bagging up leftovers to take home. You can also ask for a “lunch” portion or a kid’s size portion, order water with meals, and ask for vegetable sides instead of what is offered. I live in Europe now, and I miss the service-based culture where you can ask for things politely and the restaurant usually obliges and tries to accommodate you, instead of telling you that it’s not possible. Here, meal splitting is met with a look of craziness, and if you don’t finish your meal, they’ll happily throw it away for you (asking for a box/tray to take home leftovers is met with a look of craziness). Portion sizes are on the rise here, you have to ask for tap water, and in most cases you’ll be charged for it, although beverages have a standard serving size and “free refills” are never heard of.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 13, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Nilam – It’s funny – I just got an email from a friend in NYC who for the first time saw the posted calorie information at a Starbucks and was FREAKED OUT. She made the whole family split all the food and drink they purchased. So you’re right — information can be power! (On the other hand, I just posted on TLT’s Facebook page a study which seemed to indicate that college kids were basically ignoring nutrition information in their dining halls, but I refuse to believe that’s the norm.)

It’s also interesting to hear that attitudes are so different in Europe. I wonder if the “free refill” and the Big Gulp beverage sizes are on their way overseas along with our influence on portion size. Hope not. Thanks for this interesting comment!

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Christina @ Spoonfed July 13, 2011 at 9:44 pm

To add to Bri’s comments: The main problem, as I see it, is that these restaurants’ adult meals are, in most cases, just as overly processed and unhealthy as the kids’ meals. So this feels like a marketing gimmick. I’m all for anything that tips the balance toward better food, but it’s hard for me to get excited about what might pass for “healthy” at places like Burger King or Denny’s or IHOP.

On a more positive note… Bettina, you asked about the economic feasibility of half-portions. That came up when I wrote a series on kids’ menus last summer, when a chef asked for input on his new children’s menu, then responded with a thoughtful critique of people’s ideas. His before-and-after comments are in the posts below, but, in short, half-portions are feasible with careful planning and for certain kinds of foods (probably not the steak):

http://spoonfedblog.net/2010/06/14/hate-childrens-menusheres-your-chance-to-help-create-a-better-one/

http://spoonfedblog.net/2010/07/02/creating-a-better-childrens-menu-a-chef-speaks/

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Bri July 14, 2011 at 9:45 am

Although, now that I think about it, there is a bistro in Providence with a great kids’ menu that is basically small portions of adult items. The most popular thing they have? The kids’ steak frites plate. It’s a tiny hanger steak and a little mound of frites, and you can obviously get veggies etc. on the side.
Now, say what you will about the nutritional value of frites, the mere fact that this childrens’ menu exists drives customers to that restaurant, and as a parent, I’m more than willing to pay a slightly higher price for that food for my kid, as opposed to the usual grilled cheese/hot dog/pasta marinara affair.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 14, 2011 at 9:10 pm

This is what I’m hoping — that there are enough parents who will patronize restaurants precisely because they know they can feed their kids decently there. On this blog I keep touting a regional chain, Jason’s Deli – it’s starting to sound like I have an ownership interest! I don’t go there that often but it’s the sort of place I think of when I’m in charge of a large group of kids at lunch time — I feel better about going there vs. a lot of places because there are salads, baked potatoes, turkey sandwiches, apple slices and that sort of thing for kids. Yes, there is the pizza and hot dog side of the menu, too, but at least there’s a choice.

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Donna July 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I agree with David’s comments above about the difference between a toddler and an older child. That topic is rarely addressed. It may be much tougher to shift a toddler to an unfamiliar item than to offer a healthier item to an older child with a broader palate. My middle schooler often prefers an adult offering to the kid meals, but still has an appetite that’s in line with her small size. As a result, we take her leftovers home. Or she orders an appetizer. It’s easy, though, for my high schooler to overeat. She almost always orders an adult meal, but doesn’t always manage the portion size. It would be great if more restaurants offered smaller portions to accommodate older children (and many adults!)

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Kristin July 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I would say that food preferences for “familiar foods” are really tough to account for, no matter what the age. I would say that we generally try to pick restaurants that we know our kids will like something at, whether or not it is something on the kids menu. For example, if your child doesn’t usually eat hot dogs or chicken nuggets but is served grilled chicken and steamed broccoli at home the “familiar food” might be on the adult menu. This could be a toddler, teenager or adult. And although my kids do tend to like the foods on a kids menu if presented with them, until my oldest could read, we made the choices for them, no matter where the choices were on the menu. This has taken many forms:
1. giving a toddler a small taste of the foods from our plates instead of ordering their own plate of food
2. ordering an adult meal to split between kids (sometimes we are even able to split a kids meal when we know the portions are large)
3. ordering 2 different kids meals with 2 different sides and giving both kids half of each of the meals when they arrived (therefore each ending up with pasta, chicken, veggie and fruit in smaller amounts)
4. having the kids order the healthy sides with their meals and giving them a share of a small side order of fries (instead of them each ordering fries, not veggies, with their meal).

It is a little harder now that my oldest can read that fries are a choice or that the dessert comes free with her meal, but she is also old enough to start to understand why we choose certain foods over others. Just another challenge in parenting!

With all of the options, the biggest thing is really the portion size. Obviously people of all different ages need to be aware of how much food they are eating. Wouldn’t it be great if you could order a half entree at any age?

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 16, 2011 at 7:39 am

I like all your ideas for navigating a restaurant with kids — we do stuff like that all the time. And I was laughing about your child being able to read and discovering that dessert comes with a children’s meal – that was a dark day for us, too!

As for portion size, I hope the restauranteurs of America are listening here. Just as food manufacturers figured out that people were willing to pay MORE for snack food if you packaged it up in little 100 calorie bags, maybe restaurants will soon realize that some people place a premium on reasonable portion sizes.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 16, 2011 at 7:32 am

Although sometimes it could go the other way, too. I feel like my kids were somewhat more flexible when they were very little. But I take your point, and also agree wholeheartedly about portion sizes. I’ve realized lately that my stomach often feels satisfied when I’ve eaten like 1/5th of a restaurant entree, but for reasons of social acceptability (no one else at the table is even close to finished) or just because the food tastes so good, I keep on eating! Not good!

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Christina @ Spoonfed July 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

David: Calling typical kid-menu fare “familiar foods” is actually part of the problem. As Kristin noted, who’s to say what’s familiar/desirable to a particular child or particular family? There is no such thing as “kid food,” despite marketers’ great success in selling us otherwise.

And, as Bettina noted, little kids are often extremely flexible about what they’ll eat — *if* we let them and encourage them. Let’s give kids some credit for being able to eat a variety of foods, OK?

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Jennifer July 18, 2011 at 10:40 pm

While it is obviously a step in the right direction, my biggest concern is the fact that the supposed healthy options will be chemical laden apples and the like. Restaurants need to take this a step further and offer ORGANIC fruits and vegetables with their meals since developing children are so strongly affected by pesticides. I would rather my child eat a meal high in calories and fat than one full of harmful chemicals. Quite honestly, the only place I can feel safe feeding my children is my own home, where I control what healthy, organic options they have.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Jennifer: if organic is your number one concern, then I agree, it is very hard to eat out at a lot of places. But just speaking of fruit, is it just me or is the fruit served to kids as part of a kids’ menu is generally awful? With apple slices it might be due to a citric acid treatment to keep them from turning brown, but why is the melon always rock hard, the pineapple mouth-puckeringly sour, etc? (And I’m talking about some otherwise nice restaurants here.) Maybe they think/hope kids won’t notice?

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