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Are Healthier Kids Menus Coming to Your Favorite Restaurant?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
It is difficult to listen to the news, read a newspaper, or review online blogs these days without hearing about the childhood obesity epidemic.  With a childhood obesity rate that has more than tripled in the past 30 years, the problem certainly is important to address. Last year the First Lady launched her Let's Move Campaign but more information and tools are necessary to teach kids healthy habits.
Last week there were two breaking headlines related to this topic. The first headline surrounding a renowned child obesity expert had Twitter feeds and news message boards lit up. A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that states should intervene in life-threatening childhood obesity cases. The authors acknowledge many factors affect energy balance. They also site many aspects of modern society promote unhealthy lifestyles that contribute to childhood obesity issues. Their controversial opinion loosely links inadequate parental supervision and role modeling of healthy habits as a form of child abuse that contribute to issues of severe obesity in children. They suggest that some severely obese children in this situation would be better off in foster care than with their parents. The second health related topic leader of the week related to restaurants offering healthier food for kids
Some call the Kids Live Well campaign a restaurant marketing ploy while others consider it a positive response to a national crisis. Regardless of how you label it, the collaboration between the National Restaurant Association and the team of registered dietitians at Healthy Dining will help families make healthier choices when eating away from home. Helping families make healthier choices will hopefully decrease the need to even think about having to remove children from families for health reasons. Here is a closer look at what the new program includes.

Over 15,000 restaurant locations from 19 restaurant brands will lead the Kids Live Well program. They are using the new MyPlate and 2010 Dietary Guidelines as the foundation of program guidelines. Participating restaurants agree to:
  • Include at least one full meal (entrée, side and beverage) for children that contains 600 calories or less consisting of two or more servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy while also limiting sodium, fats and sugar. Meals must contain less than 35% of the calories from sugar and total fat and less than 10% of calories from saturated fat with less than .5 grams of artificial trans fat. The meal should contain less than 770 mg of sodium.
  • Include at least one individual item of no more than 200 calories that also limits fats, sugars and sodium and is a serving of a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, lean protein or low-fat dairy. The individual nutrient criteria remains the same as for the entrée but there must be 250 mg or less of sodium.
  • Serving sizes for entrées and sides are to be ½ cup fruit (100 percent juice included); ½ cup vegetables; 2 or more ounces of white meat poultry, fish/seafood, beef, pork, tofu, beans, eggs or egg substitute or one ounce of nuts, seeds or dried beans for lean protein; ½ cup of skim or l% milk.
  • Either display nutrition information for highlighted healthier menu options or have it readily available upon request.
  • Healthier menu options should either be promoted or easily identified.
What does this mean? It means it will now be easier to find the smarter selections at your favorite restaurants without having to rely on helpful reviews such as Food on the Run or Diet Friendly Dining. It will mean that families can educate their children about healthy meal choices whether they are eating at home or away. It doesn't necessarily mean there will be new items at participating restaurants or that those restaurant chains that are not a part of the campaign do not have items that fit within these criteria. As of right now, McDonald's is not participating directly in the program but does offer options that would fit well with the established guidelines.
You will likely see new meal combinations highlighted and become the new standard.  For example, Burger King has stated they will automatically making French fries and soda the kid's meal standard in favor of offering apple fries and low-fat milk or 100% apple juice. It doesn't mean you can't still select the all time favorites, It just means the choice will be more prominent. Here is how those two meals compare.

Hamburger, French fries and Sprite
Calories – 590
Fat – 21 grams (6.5 grams saturated, 0 grams trans fat)
Sodium – 850 mg (750 mg with unsalted fries)
Sugar – 35 grams
Healthier meal with a hamburger, 100% Apple juice and apple fries with low-fat caramel sauce
Calories – 431
Fat – 10.5 grams (4 grams saturated; 0 grams trans fat)
Sodium – 540 mg
Sugar – 37 grams
Both of these meals would fit within the guidelines (with the unsalted fries) and could be highlighted as healthier options. However, the burger with the juice and apple fries is a more nutrient rich choice for sure.

The Bottom Line
Healthy meals and snacks build healthy bodies. The journey begins during pregnancy, carries into childhood and throughout the teen years.  As the saying goes, it takes a village to ensure that children learn how to live healthy lifestyles. Parents are the first line educators but they rely on support from schools, neighbors and the community at large. The restaurant association and Healthy Dining finder have collaborated to support families as part of that village to help children eat healthier.
One caution to keep in mind relates to calorie levels of meals and daily calorie needs. Most kid's meals are aimed at elementary aged children who typically need between 1400-2200 calories per day. While a 600-calorie meal can fit nicely in a 2200-calorie meal and snack plan, it may not in a 1400-calorie plan. Be sure to talk with your child's medical provider or a nutrition professional like a Registered Dietitian if you are unsure about the correct calorie level for your child. Then be sure the healthier meals they are selecting at restaurants still fits within that level.
Education, support, and working together are our best chance at improving childhood obesity rates. I am glad to hear healthier options will be highlighted for children at restaurants. In many cases, these meals will be healthier options for adults as well. Remember that eating out can fit into a healthy eat plan but moderation is important. Children also need to learn healthy cooking and they are never to young to start. The new Kids Live Well meal guidelines can be used as a framework for cooking at home too.
What do you think of this new campaign? Do you think it will make a difference in childhood obesity rates?

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It never made sense to me that all I ever really see on the kids menu in restaurants is:
- chicken fingers and fries
- grilled cheese and fries
- pasta
and a soda to drink
Can't they be a little bit more creative? I usually try to order from the regular menu for my little one. A healthy side or two. Report
Next we will have food police in our kitchens!! Egads...government can't run anything right...why are we depending on them to get our kids eating right? Just look at our education system...I homeschool and wouldn't dream of leaving my son's education in the governments hands.

If you want a restaurant to serve healthier food....OPEN ONE YOURSELF! Report
Healthier choices ar fast food restaurants is a good idea. Removing kids from their families is truly cruel. Any punitive measures are bound to fail. I would like to see positive ways to engage parents and kids. Negativity, including focusing on the "obesity epidemic" is appalling; let's focus on healthy living. Browbeating people will only trigger their defenses and they will not be open to new information, much less implementing it. Nutrition is a complex issue, and there is no one answer. Even on SP, we have different approaches. The experts here and elsewhere don't have all the answers. So, hey, let's start with baby steps, and for those who DO patronize fast food restaurants, healthier choices with more promotion is a start. Let's not demonize parents. Report
I'm floored by the fact that any doctor would claim that the trauma of being ripped out of a home is BETTER for children in the long run than being fat. People would seriously recommend that obese children with obese parents should be taken away from their families and forced to live with total strangers? That's straight-up EVIL.

As for the restaurant menus... both of those menus are loaded with sugar, empty calories (apple fries and apple juice, being processed and pulp/skin free, are devoid of any real nutrition), and unsustainable agricultural products from Monsanto. It's not going to make any children healthier. A home-cooked meal consisting mostly of real vegetables, no added sugars, and healthy protein will do a whole lot more good. Report
I think it is great that restaurants and everyone is looking for healthier options. But still 600 calories for one meal? That's a lot for me! Let alone a child who has much less calorie needs. It still seems like a high calorie intake, even if the child is only consuming 3 meals a day without snacks, that's 1800 calories a day. That's enough for maintenance for me, a 5'7" woman who exercises at least an hour 6 days a week. Too much for a kid who isn't active, or does light activity, who is much shorter than I am.

At least it is a step in the right direction. Report
I don't think it will make much of a difference
Children have no control over portion. They
eat what taste good. Healthy eating habits
should start at home, but are parents educated
enough as to what and how much to give theiir
I have mixed feelings about this whole idea. As others have stated, it's great to be able to get healthier choices for ourselves and children when eating out but there are way too many things that the government seems to think that they should control. The thought that someone could have their children removed because of a perceived life-threatening obesity case is absurd. Not every case of obesity is caused by overeating - many medical problems can lead to weight gain and at what point do they draw the line. I believe that this is just another way to get more control on a government level and take away more freedom that we have as Americans. Eating healthy was a lot easier to do when more people raised their own food. Teaching these healthy eating habits should be more important that regulating what is served in our schools and restaurants. Report
CKAROL- Awesome points and I totally agree!! Report
I am going to start teaching preschool in about 3 weeks and one of the things I'm going to focus on is living healthy. I'm going to have them help grow a mini garden (a small container garden) and am really going to try and have more active lesson plans. This will include lots of info going home to the parents. I agree that the change needs to start at home. I don't really think buying junk food with foodstamps differs from purchasing fast food for your kids. No matter where it's coming from it's still junk and that is a parents job. We'll see if I can make a difference here. Even if it is with just 10 kids a year. Report
I have two thoughts after reading htis article. First is that it is a dangerous precedent to set when we start removing children from the home because of obesity. Who sets the threshhold? How obese is obese enough to warrent being removed? What about underweight children? And what other parenting choices are going to receive scrutiny next? Violent video games? Watching inappropriate movies? Teen sneaking cigarettes? If they're talking about kids on the verge of needing gastric bypass, maybe the "doctors" need to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they haven't intervened before it got to this point, asuming that the child went for a yearly well check this trend should have been noticed during the pre-school/ early elementary years long before the child became morbidly obese.

Second - I blame a lot of the reliance on eating out on the new "two-income" earner economics of our day and age. The reason our mothers and grandmothers could cook balanced home made meals every night was because they were home for the most part. Their full time job was to take care of their husbands and children. Even those who worked outside of the home were often home at an hour that they wouldbe there when the kids came home from school (3-4 pm) which is plenty of time to cook a meal. Fast forward to today. I don't get home from work until 6pm. I have 30 minutes to attempt to throw together a balanced meal. And that's on the days that I don't have to pick up my son from the babysitter's. On the nights I do have to be the one to pick him up we're walking in the door at 6:45. I do my best. I try to make enough so we have leftovers for those days. I've done cold sandwiches and salad for dinner. But I also have resorted to the drive through or picked up a pizza on the way home too. I certainly don't think that makes me a bad mom. I make the best choices I can from the menu, chicken nuggets and apple slices with low-fat chocolate milk seems like an okay option in a pinch to me.
Oh and my child happens to be underweight too.

More than what they are eating is the fact that NO ONE feels comfortable letting their young children play outside unsupervised anymore. We used to play outside alone without parents from about the age of 3-4 on. The older children kept an eye on the younger ones. Not today, not after hearing things like about that poor kid in Brooklyn last week.

I teach 5th grade & have been thinking about ways I can implement healthy habits in my classroom, not only to keep me on track, but to get them headed in the right direction. I did a blog the other day with a few ideas I have that may be tweeked by the time school begins, but I'd LOVE for anyone to stop by & post what you think, & even add something if they want! Just things like having their homework be at least 50min of physical activity per week, having them plant a vegetable of their choice to take care of in our classroom, having a water bottle at their desk, teaching them about healthy eating habits & even bringing in different healthy foods for them to try from the farmer's market in town. I know a lot of these kids don't eat the best somewhat due to very low incomes, but also because they grow up with fast food in their faces & school meals that aren't very healthy.

I love seeing healthier items on menus & even displaying calorie values on the menu, but it sucks you still have to do some research when going on because "healthy foods" can sometimes be deceptive. Report
I hate to say we seem to have messed things up. We have torn down many of our neighborhood within walking/bike riding distance schools and opted for large school complexes that children need to be bused to. We are required to teach them how to have safe sex and be tolerant of different sexual practices instead of healthy nutrition and exercise in Health asnd PE Classes (If they even have them still). Then we have government people complain that the kids need to move more and eat healthy, but have no where or to do it or knowledge on how. Children have grown up not knowing these things and now are the parents of children that are reaping what has been or has not been taught.

In addition to all of that, it has been my experience that while watching other families, even my grandkids, that the kids hardly touch the stuff they get at resturants (fast or otherwise). Personally, I wouldn't eat most of those kids meal items either. Report
If 600 calories is healthier, what were the calories before? I don't eat 600 calories for a meal! Report
I notice on the list that the only true "bad" restaurant was BK...the other's have always had fairly healthy kids menus imo Report
I wish restaurants were more allergy- and intolerance-friendly. I can't eat out in general, because it's like trying to get through a minefield unscathed. Report
I think it is a good idea that restaurants are offering healthier menu items BUT I don't think this should be a part of a governmental campaign. IMO, the government is a mess right now and those that are running really need to clean up their own house and getting running right instead of worrying about what people are ordering in restaurants. Personally, I think the governement should be more concern with the junk food that is purchased with food stamps than the meals people are buying in restaurants!!! Report
50 years ago, my mom remembers what a treat it was to go to White Castle or McDonalds. Notice I said a treat. When my mom was a kid, you only went out to eat occasionally--and because it was only occasionally, it was totally okay to eat a cheeseburger, fries, and even a shake, because it wasn't a habit. We need to focus on going back to cooking from scratch and letting kids play outside. I have no problem whatsoever letting my stepdaughter have a Happy Meal when we go to McDonalds (she gets a cheeseburger, fries, and a Dr Pepper), because I only take her maybe once a month! Time to stop blaming everyone else for our kids being overweight and start doing something about it! Report
It's nice that restaurants are taking the initiative to offer healthier choices, but is it honestly going to make a difference? The people who will encourage their children to choose those meals over the unhealthier are the ones who are likely doing the same thing at home. Offering healthier choices at restaurants is good, but it's not going to change the way people eat overall. Report
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