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?