10 Years of Failure in Restaurant Kids’ Meals

Report shows 72 percent of meals still fail nutrition standards

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The majority of kids’ meals at top US restaurant chains failed to meet nutrition standards often because they exceeded calorie or sodium recommendations, according to an analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

The report, Selling Out Kids’ Health: 10 Years of Failure from Restaurants on Kids’ Meals, examined food and beverage options offered in children’s meals in restaurants. Researchers analyzed the menus and compared the meals from the top 50 restaurant chains by revenue in 2008, 2012, and 2018 to a set of nutrition standards based on CSPI’s Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children. Researchers found that 71.9 percent of meals failed to meet nutrition standards in 2018 when they factored in the number of outlets for each restaurant.  

This indicates no improvement compared to 2012, when 71.8 percent of kids’ meals failed to meet nutrition standards.  

The report also found that 17 of the 38 restaurants (45 percent) offering kids’ meals in 2018 did not have a single meal that met CSPI’s nutrition standards. 

While the 2018 data are an improvement compared to 2008, when 89.3 percent of meals failed to meet nutrition standards, the majority of top restaurant chains still perform poorly against nutrition standards. Researchers found that the improvements made since 2008 have largely resulted from changes at the few largest restaurant chains measured by number of outlets. In 2008, 81 percent of children’s meals from the four largest chains included in all three analyses failed to meet nutrition standards. This number dropped to 45 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, in 2008, 99 percent of the remaining chains failed to meet nutrition standards. This number remained largely unchanged at 98 percent in 2018. 

“It’s disappointing that restaurants are still offering mostly unhealthy meals to children,” said Sara Ribakove, CSPI’s senior policy associate. “CSPI urges restaurants to support kids' health by improving the nutritional quality of their kids’ meals.” 

The report offered several steps the private and public sectors can take to reverse the failing performance in kids’ meals. Restaurants should adopt nutrition standards for children’s meals, according to CSPI. By setting standards for calories, sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars, restaurants can do their part to promote healthy eating, the group says.

To help meet these standards, restaurants can reduce portion sizes, remove sugary drinks from their kids’ menus, and increase fruit and vegetable options. CSPI states that restaurants can do this on their own or through the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, a voluntary program designed to improve the healthfulness of restaurant kids’ meals.  

Interestingly, researchers found that kids’ meals from restaurants participating in the Kids LiveWell program were more likely to fail nutrition standards, at 85 percent, than those from non-participating restaurants, at 67 percent. However, recently the National Restaurant Association has improved its program by strengthening its nutrition standards and adding the requirement of healthy default beverages for participation. The program could be further improved by requiring restaurants full kids’ menus meet nutrition standards, rather than just two meals and two sides, and increased restaurant participation, according to CSPI. 

In addition, restaurants can take steps to improve their marketing approaches by promoting only healthy options to children through mass media, websites, in-store promotions, and other venues, according to the report. 

States and localities should consider adopting policies similar to those already passed, such as the healthy kids’ meal bill in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which was the first in the nation to ensure that at least one kids’ meal combination meets nutrition standards. 

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Contact Info: 
Katherine Shek, kshek@cspinet.org and Tia Schwab, tschwab@cspinet.org