Fast-Food Restaurants Not Promoting Healthy Kids’ Meal Options

Breaking News: Yesterday, McDonald's announced it is making Happy Meals healthier, a move advocated by UConn's Rudd Center.

Breaking News: Yesterday, McDonald's announced it is making Happy Meals healthier, a move advocated by UConn's Rudd Center. ()

Breaking News: On Feb. 15, 2018, McDonald’s announced it is taking cheeseburgers and chocolate milk off its Happy Meal menu in an effort to cut down on the calories, sodium, saturated fat and sugar that kids consume at its restaurants.

A new study evaluating major U.S. fast-food restaurant chains’ pledges to offer healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides shows inconsistent implementation at the chains’ individual restaurant locations. In addition, promotion of healthier items varied widely between the chains examined, according to a new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

“Since 2013, the fast-food restaurants we examined have made changes to offer and promote healthier drink and side options for kids’ meals,” says Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences, director of marketing initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the report. “Still, about one-third of menu boards inside the restaurants we examined continued to list sugary soda and other soft drinks as an option for kids’ meals. And perhaps more importantly, there was wide variation in whether customers were offered the healthier options when they ordered a kids’ meal.”

“Some personnel at all the chains examined continued to give customers a cup for a soft drink and/or french fries with kids’ meal orders without offering any healthier options – despite the pledges,” she adds.

The new study evaluated implementation of pledges made since 2013 by McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dairy Queen to remove sugar-sweetened fountain drinks from their menu boards and/or offer healthier drinks and sides with kids’ meals.

Researchers analyzed kids’ meal drink and side items listed on the chains’ websites; kids’ meal drink and side items listed and pictured on menu boards and on signs at a sample of individual restaurants; and drinks and sides offered by individual restaurant personnel when mystery shoppers ordered kids’ meals. To assess changes over time, results were compared to data collected in 2010 and 2013.

Healthier drinks and sides included 100 percent juice, low-fat milk, and water, non-fried fruits and vegetables, and other options. Unhealthy options included sugar-sweetened soda and other fountain drinks, fried potatoes, and desserts.

Key results of the study include:

  • In 2016, none of the restaurant chains examined listed sugary soda and other soft drinks on the kids’ meal menus posted on their websites, a notable improvement from 2013, when all restaurants except Subway listed them. In addition, all chains listed at least one healthier kids’ meal drink, such as low-fat plain milk, 100 percent juice, and/or water.
  • All chains also listed at least one healthier side item on their websites’ kids’ meal menus, including fresh fruit, applesauce, and/or yogurt. However, all restaurants except Subway continued to list unhealthy kids’ meal side items too, such as french fries or desserts, on their websites’ kids’ meal menus.
  • Individual restaurants at all chains consistently listed healthier drink and side options on their kids’ meal menu boards inside restaurants in 2016. However, despite pledges to remove sugary soda and other soft drinks from kids’ meal menus, approximately one-third or more of restaurants visited at each chain also continued to list these drinks for kids’ meals on menu boards.
  • Some personnel at all restaurant chains continued to only offer sugary soda and other soft drink options with kids’ meal orders, ranging from 16 percent to 18 percent of orders at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, to 44 percent of orders at KFC and Wendy’s, and 67 percent of Dairy Queen orders.
  • Just 8 percent of restaurant personnel at Burger King and 22 percent at Wendy’s offered the restaurants’ healthier kids’ meal side options, compared with 100 percent of orders at McDonald’s.  However, at all three restaurants, the majority of kids’ meal orders automatically received french fries – ranging from 68 percent at McDonald’s (the chain’s kids’ meals come with two side items) to 90 percent at Burger King.

The evaluation found that restaurants have increased the number of healthier side and drink options available with kids’ meals, but customers often received sugary soda and other soft drinks and/or french fries automatically when they ordered a kids’ meal. When restaurant personnel suggested the healthier options, they typically offered them as one of several choices, often together with unhealthy options.

“Restaurant chains should do more to actively encourage customers to purchase their healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides at the point of sale,” Harris says. “Offering healthy drinks and sides as the default with kids’ meals would make them the easiest choice for parents, and help improve the nutrition quality of fast food consumed by children.”

Support for this research was provided by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Report co-authors include Maia Hyary, Nicole Seymour, and Yoon-Young Choi of the UConn Rudd Center.