If you care about what kids eat, few things are more maddening than the typical restaurant children’s menu.
Not only are most kids’ menus a nutritional wasteland of mac-n-cheese, chicken nuggets and fries, they also implicitly teach kids that “their” food is cheesy or fried, while wholesome foods like salads and sandwiches are the sole province of adults. That message, when paired with this kind of hyper-palatable fare, only makes it harder for parents when they try to offer kids healthier food at home.
The restaurant industry knows its children’s menus are a PR problem, but they’re also profitable. Soda, traditionally the default drink in kids’ meals, has an “insanely high” profit margin, while the inclusion of toys – invariably depicting the latest popular licensed movie or television character – is a proven way to market directly to kids and drive families into fast food restaurants.
There have been some positive changes in recent years. For example, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been successful in pushing many major chains to drop soda as their kids’ default beverage. But in general, industry self-regulation has fallen short. (See: “The Restaurant Industry Promised to Clean Up Kids’ Menus, Yet Little Has Changed.”) That’s because even when chains (like Jason’s Deli, for example) do improve their kids’ menus, the nuggets, mac-n-cheese and hot dogs usually remain front and center, likely tempting kids away from the healthier offerings and continuing to make eating out a battle between kids and health-conscious parents.
- Clean. No artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners or colors from artificial sources.
- Worthy of trust. No gimmicks. No distractions. No cartoon characters, crazy colors, toys, or toy-shaped food.
- Full of delicious options. Let kids be kids. Let them be picky. Let them make their own choices from a menu full of tasty, wholesome options.
- Nutritiously paired. Growing bodies need a meal complete with nutritious sides. Not fries, not onion rings. Options like organic yogurt, sprouted grain rolls, or apples.
- Drink optional. Kids meals shouldn’t encourage kids to drink a sugary beverage. Ours never have, never will. Water first, then the option of adding organic milk or 100% juice.
As of September 20th, children at Panera can now choose a smaller sized version of almost any item on the main menu, including salads, soups and sandwiches, resulting in over 250 possible kids’ meal combinations.
But late last month, Panera went one step further by throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the fast food industry. In a video released on Twitter, Panera CEO Ron Shaich challenged the CEOs of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King to eat off their kids’ menu for an entire week.
Here’s what he said about the challenge to Business Insider:
I want to say to them, would you really eat your own kids’ meals for a week?. . . . Would you really order it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, three meals a day for seven days?
What do you think the nutritional content of that food you’d be eating is? . . . . Do you feel good about that? And, if you don’t feel good about it, why would you serve it to kids?”
It seems unlikely to me that Shaich’s challenge will actually move the needle at the named three fast food chains. For one thing, a Panera kids’ meal is priced from $4.59 to $7.89, about twice as much as a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And even if those fast food chains did allow kids to choose from the adult menu, the nutritional landscape there is still pretty bleak.
But if Panera’s challenge doesn’t change the ways of McDonald’s and its ilk, it may still influence other “fast casual” restaurants offering food at the same price point. And, either way, thanks to its Kids Meal Promise, the healthier choice is now by far the easier choice for parents and kids in all of its restaurants.
If we really care about kids, isn’t that the way it should be?
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