Too many restaurant chains still serving sugary drinks with kids’ meals, despite progress

sodas sugary drinks restaurant kids meals

James Yarema -

New CSPI report assesses availability of sugary drinks at top 200 restaurant chains

Despite concerns about added sugars’ contribution to diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, and tooth decay, 44 percent of the nation’s top 200 restaurant chains were still offering soda or other sugary drinks on their kids’ menus in 2021, according to a recent CSPI report. That represents a drop from 2019, when 56 percent of the top 200 chains offered sugary drinks to kids. 

However, when the researchers examined the availability of sugary drinks by the number of outlets, as opposed to the number of chains, a different picture emerges: Of 209,348 total restaurant outlets represented by the top 200 chains, 30 percent, or 62,770 outlets offered sugary drinks to kids in 2021. That represents a modest increase from 2019, when 28 percent of chains offered sugary drinks to kids. More outlets offered 100% juice (54 percent) and low-fat milk (40 percent) than sugary drinks (30 percent) in 2021.  

165 chains were ranked in the top 200 in both 2019 and 2021. Nineteen of these chains (12 percent) did not offer sugary drinks to kids in 2019 compared to 27 chains (16 percent) in 2021. Six chains that did not offer sugary drinks to kids in 2019 offered them to kids in 2021. Fourteen chains offered sugary drinks to kids in 2019, but no longer offered them in 2021. 

CSPI has been urging restaurant chains to drop sugary drinks from kids’ menus for more than a decade. In 2013, McDonald’s announced it would no longer offer sugary drinks as the default with its iconic Happy Meals. Applebee’s, Arby’s, IHOP, Dairy Queen, and other chains followed suit in the following years. Some chains, like Subway, have long since replaced soda with healthier defaults in kids’ meals.  

But CSPI’s analyses show that progress among the top chains is slowing, or even reversing. Additional data from CSPI also indicates that 14 chains that do not offer kids’ sugary drinks in-store do offer kids’ sugary drinks online. This suggests that restaurants that have removed sugary drinks from their kids’ menus, such as Chipotle or Buffalo Wild Wings, may not have applied their commitments consistently across all customer ordering points.  

“It’s hard to believe now, but until the early 2000s, many of the top 200 restaurant chains put ash trays on tables alongside the salt and pepper shakers in designated smoking sections,” said CSPI senior policy associate Sara Ribakove. “But times change. We now know that it is inappropriate to lazily offer a disease-promoting product like sugary drinks by default to children. We need the restaurant industry to accelerate the pace of change on its own, and we also need policymakers at all levels of government to prioritize reducing children’s intake of added sugars generally and soda specifically.” 

In recent years, CSPI has urged the adoption of state and local ordinances that require that healthy default drinks, such as water, 100% juice, nonfat or low-fat milk, be sold at chain restaurants that offer kids’ meals. Cities as diverse as Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Louisville have passed such ordinances, as have major counties, such as Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland—both of which have also ensured that one kids’ meal on the menu will meet expert nutrition standards. States like California, Hawaii, and Delaware have all passed similar laws improving kids’ meals. 

Sugary drinks, such as soda, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet.  


# # #