For kids, fast food is up, healthy options are down

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Fast-food chains have promised to offer healthier kids’ meals, and have made some changes. But the results of an online survey published Thursday suggest that most parents are still buying their kids french fries and soda with their meals instead of apple slices and low-fat milk.

In a 2016 online survey, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut asked 871 parents from diverse racial and economic backgrounds about their fast-food purchases. Ninety-one percent said they took their kids for at least one meal within the past week at one of the four largest fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway — up from 79 percent in a similar survey taken in 2010.

“We need to stop pushing what’s the norm in this country, that soda and fries are the meal for kids.”

Those four restaurants all made public commitments to offer healthier options for beverages and sides in kids’ meals, but the Rudd Center found that just 26 percent of parents reported buying meals with only healthy food for their children.

The survey could not explain why such a low percentage of parents reported exclusively choosing healthy options, especially since it found that parents cited those options as a factor in choosing fast-food restaurants.

“Although the restaurants now have more healthy options, and are taking the unhealthy drinks off the menu boards, parents aren’t getting the healthier options,” Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences at the Rudd Center and the lead author of the study, told NBC News. “Fast-food restaurants smell like french fries, they have soda logos and photos of burgers and desserts. It’s not easy to select the healthier option.”


The statistics from the survey indicate that parents are mostly buying meals with at least one unhealthy item for kids, and that overall, nearly all kids’ meal items exceed recommended levels of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.

Harris also said restaurants could do more to support parents. She cited a study from the Rudd Center released last month that found that online, the four restaurants had taken steps to add healthy options to kids’ menus or remove unhealthy items entirely. However, when researchers visited restaurants, they found that one-third offered unhealthy options that were not listed online, and that some automatically provided a cup for a soda fountain drink instead of a healthy beverage.