Activists say restaurants should make kid's meals more nutritious

WASHINGTON — Parents looking for a fast-food fix can count their kids' calories thanks to a 2015 law that required the eateries to post the calorie counts on their menus. Now, health experts want the fast-food behemoths to make kids' meals nutritious.

At stake is the health of a generation, the experts said Monday at a panel on kids food at the National Press Club.

Reducing calories is good, says Larry Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, but if the calories “don’t contain anything that’s nutritious in them it’s a huge limitation."

Nutritional food at restaurants "must be the next thing we demand," he said.

Eating out, once reserved for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries, is now a way of life for working parents and busy families. American adults and children consume about a third of their calories at restaurants, said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit for a healthier food system.

“Nutrition at restaurants matters,” Wootan said.

Eating habits are set early in life, said Sanjay Sehgal, vice president of nutrition, health and wellness at Nestlé USA. About one in three American children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for serious health problems, such as diabetes, asthma and heart failure, he said.

The discussion reached a pitch last month when bakery-café chain Panera Bread announced its “kid’s meal promise,” which guaranteed a children’s menu free of artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners or colors, and eliminated marketing gimmicks, such as cartoon characters, crazy colors and toy-shaped food. The chain also pledges to make drinks on the kid's menu optional, and provide several choices of nutritional sides.

Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich said the “most powerful way to drive change (in the food industry) is for someone to take the leap and prove it actually works and that there’s a marketplace for it.”

More than 155 brands — including Applebee's, Burger King and Wendy's — in over 42,000 locations nationwide participate in the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program. The restaurants commit to increasing servings of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low fat-dairy, while limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.

“Restaurants, now more than ever, are offering choices to meet every consumer's needs," said Christin Fernandez, director of media relations and public affairs at the National Restaurant Association, a food service trade organization that supports more than half a million restaurant businesses.

Such changes are costly. Drinks and fries pull in the largest profits, Shaich said. Steering consumers away from those products could cut into short-term profit, he said.

Critics say none of the chains have gone far enough.

While eateries now comply with the Food and Drug Administration directive to post calorie counts on menus, the menu items aren't necessarily healthy, said Christina Economos, director of ChildObesity180, a health project at Tufts University in Boston. Healthy beverages and sides, such as water and apples, should be the default items on kid’s menus, rather than sugary drinks and french fries, Economos said.

That's key for busy parents who want to save money and time with a value meal that combines food and drinks, Wootan said.


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