Kid's menus getting better in calories but lagging in sodium, fat

Fast-food and full-service restaurants are making strides to create a healthier menu for kids, but there's still a long way to go.

According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, most meals on children's menus are still exceeding dietary guidelines for healthy levels of fat, saturated fat and sodium.

The study's findings

The researchers analyzed menu choices in the top 20 U.S restaurant chains (based on sales) which offered a kids' menu, made nutritional information public and provided calorie counts for all kids' meals. The researchers looked at calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium from kids' meal combinations and compared that to current U.S. dietary recommendations. The researchers concluded that many meals met calories recommendations but missed on the others.

For fast-food restaurants, 72% of children's meals were within calorie recommendations. For full-service restaurants, 63% of meals met calorie recommendations.

As for fat/sodium/saturated fat, 33% of fast-food restaurants met recommendations while just 25% of full-service establishments made the bar.

Overall, the study was more of a positive than in the past, according to the research team. In 2013, 90% of restaurants studied failed to meet dietary recommendations.

The current findings present encouraging information about the availability of lower-calorie kids’ meals at [fast-food and full-service restaurants].
— Sarah Sliwa, an instructor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, study lead author

Sliwa and her team also added that healthy children's meals at restaurants still isn't the norm.

Should restaurants care?

About a third of American kids are overweight or obese and there's been consumer pressure for restaurants to offer healthier meal options for children.

Given the ongoing obesity epidemic and evidence linking a greater supply of healthy children’s meal options with healthier orders, continued efforts to monitor and influence both supply and demand for healthier children’s meal options in restaurants are warranted.

While a recent study shows that adult diners, in general, don't seem to use menu labeling to make meal ordering decisions, there's no info on if parents are the same about their kids. So while there's no knowing (scientifically, speaking) if restaurants lose business based on unhealthy meal options, the trend is showing strides to healthier meals for kids.

The study also concluded that menu labeling legislation may address caloric content, but the implications for other nutrients remain unclear.