PhotoRestaurant menus generally aren’t loaded with an abundance of healthy offerings, and menus geared toward pint-sized diners are no different.

In 2011, many leading chain restaurants pledged to improve the nutritional value of their menu offerings for children. However, a new study finds that no significant improvements have been made to cut calories, saturated fat, or sodium in meals found on kids’ menus over the past five years.

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say the Kids LiveWell program, launched by the National Restaurant Association in 2011, has had little impact on the restaurant industry as a whole.

“Although some healthier options were available in select restaurants, there is no evidence that these voluntary pledges have had an industry-wide impact,” said lead author Alyssa Moran, a doctoral student at Harvard Chan School. “As public health practitioners, we need to do a better job of engaging restaurants in offering and promoting healthy meals to kids.”

Beverage options still sugary

To conduct the study, the team used data from MenuStat, a survey of the nutritional information of over 150,000 restaurant menu items conducted by the New York state government. The researchers looked at 45 of the top 100 restaurant chains in the U.S.

Of this selection, 15 restaurants were participants in Kids LiveWell -- a program that aimed to improve dietary offerings for children. But despite their voluntary participation in the program, many restaurants haven’t improved the health of their children’s menu offerings.

Often, the study found that restaurants simply swapped soda for other sugary drinks. Sugary drinks accounted for 80% of the beverage options on kids’ menus. Additionally, the average kids’ entree was still laden with saturated fat and sodium, and children’s desserts contained almost as many calories as an entree.

Improvement needed

The authors say these findings suggest that more meaningful changes are needed, especially since a previous study found that more than one in three children and adolescents consumed fast food every day in 2011 and 2012.

In order to improve the nutritional quality of kids’ menu offerings, restaurant chains will have to uphold their pledge to reduce calories from added sugar and saturated fats.

“Some restaurant chains in the U.S. have added healthier menu options, but at the end of the day, what we’re seeing is that little progress has been made to improve the nutritional quality of kid’s menu offerings despite industry pledges,” said senior author Dr. Christina Roberto, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Partnerships with government agencies and researchers could be beneficial in holding restaurants accountable for their pledge to improve the nutritional quality of children's menus, the authors said. 

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.


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