American kids are eating out at fast-food and full-service restaurants more than ever, and that makes it even more important what restaurants are serving to them. A new study of restaurant offerings by the Center for Science in the Public Interest shows that while they’re not as common as they were in the past, meals that include soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages are still common.
Sugar is a major source of added calories and sugars to Americans’ diets, and all of that sugar in turn is linked to overweight, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dental disease. We collectively have a bad habit, and wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t pass that habit on to the next generation? A good place to start would be kids’ meals in restaurants, where soda, sugar-sweetened juices, and flavored milks are often served.
Which beverages are considered part of a kids’ meal is important, because most restaurants sell these meals as a bundle that includes the beverage. CSPI evaluated the the top 50 restaurants nationally, 38 of which had beverages labeled as being for kids. 32 of those restaurants bundle beverages together with meals on the children’s menu.
The good news, per CSPI [PDF], is that restaurants are pairing fewer sugary beverages with kids’ meals than they used to.
Healthy beverages include low-fat milk, water, seltzer, and 100% juice. (Pediatricians recommend keeping even 100% juice consumption low, though.)
Restaurants that don’t include sugary beverages on children’s menus include McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, Subway, and Panera Bread.
The group also notes that low-fat milk, defined as 1% or skim milk, has become a more popular offering on children’s menus.
To keep improving, the group suggests that restaurants:
Make the default beverage for children’s meals a healthy one. That could be bottled water, fruit juice, seltzer, or low-fat milk. People generally just stick with the default option, so make sure that the default isn’t soda.
Adhere to the National Restaurant Federation’s Kids LiveWell guidelines for all children’s menu items. The program sets calorie limits and recommends more vegetables and fruit and less added sugar for children, perhaps hoping that kids will pick up good eating habits along the way.
Only advertise to kids if their meals are all healthy ones. CSPI recommends that restaurants whose children’s menu meals aren’t all up to the Kids LiveWell standards not take part in marketing moves like in-school promotions, television and online advertising, and even in-store promotions.