The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives and habits in countless, unimaginable ways. No longer able to dine out, seeking a sense of normalcy, wanting to support a struggling restaurant industry, and/or with limited time or resources to prepare food at home, many Americans shifted to ordering takeout or delivery. A survey of 1,000 consumers in the fall of 2021 found that 61 percent of consumers ordered delivery or take out at least once a week, an increase from 29 percent in 2020 and 18 percent in 2019. Restaurants responded by beefing up their online ordering operations to create a better user experience. However, not everything from the in-store experience got translated to the online ordering experience – in particular, commitments to promote healthier options.
In CSPI’s recent report on children’s beverages at top U.S. restaurant chains, we compare kids’ beverage offerings as described on restaurants’ national websites or by a member of the customer service team or restaurant staff, to beverage offerings described on restaurants’ own online ordering websites (not through mobile applications or third-party platforms). Thirty-two restaurant chains did not offer sugary drinks to kids as observed from their national menus or reported by restaurant employees, but 14 of these chains offered sugary drinks to children through online ordering.
Sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the U.S. diet and the majority of U.S. children exceed the recommended daily limit for added sugars. Excess consumption of added sugars in childhood can impact short-term and long-term health. Many restaurant chains have dropped sugary drink offerings to children in an effort to improve the healthfulness of their kids’ meals. With the recent increase in online ordering, it is important that this commitment to promote healthier options is reflected on online ordering menus.
Ideally, restaurants would not offer sugary drinks to children on the online ordering kids' menu. For example, under Panera’s design of the online ordering menu, the kids’ menu only lists healthier beverages, like low-fat milk and 100% juice. However, families wishing to purchase a different drink for their child can still do so by ordering from the beverage menu.
Panera did not offer sugary drinks to children through our non-online ordering data collection or through online ordering. This image is pulled from their online ordering menu.
However, given that the online environment does not allow customers to interface with restaurant employees, restaurants may be interested in providing more options to children through online ordering than they might on a menu in-store to allow for substitutions that may occur in-person. If this is the case, they should still design their menu to promote healthier options.
For example, when customers order a kids’ meal from Chick-fil-A's website, low-fat milk is preselected. In order to choose a different beverage, customers must click through two different pages. Restaurants should avoid listing sugary drinks alongside healthier beverage offerings, like The Cheesecake Factory has.
When a customer orders a kids’ meal online at Chick-fil-A, they can select the entree, side, and “surprise,” but low-fat milk is preselected for the beverage. Customers must click through two different webpages to select a different beverage.
The Cheesecake Factory lists soft drinks alongside its healthier beverage options.