More Kids are Eating Fast Food – and Not the Healthy Options

Closeup of kid holding french fries packet. Children are eating fast food more often. In 2016, 91 percent of parents bought fast food for a child, up from 79 percent in 2010. (Getty Images)
A new UConn study shows that children are eating fast food more often. In 2016, 91 percent of parents bought fast food for a child, up from 79 percent in 2010. (Getty Images)

Seventy-four percent of parents still purchase unhealthy drinks and side items for their kids when they visit fast-food chains, despite restaurants’ commitments to offer healthier options with kids’ meals, a new University of Connecticut study finds.

Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at UConn surveyed the nation’s four largest fast-food chains – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Subway – for the study.

They found many fast-food restaurants still automatically provide soda and French fries with kids’ meal orders and continue to widely promote their unhealthy options inside the restaurants on menu boards and signs. The healthier kids’ meal sides and drinks available include fruit and yogurt and 100 percent juice, low-fat milk, and water.

“While most fast-food restaurants do have healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides available, many do little to make parents aware of the healthier options or to encourage parents to choose the healthier options instead of unhealthy ones,” said Jennifer Harris, lead author of the report and associate professor of allied health sciences. “If restaurants are serious about children’s health, they will make the healthiest choice the easiest choice for parents and the most appealing choice for children.”

The study surveyed approximately 800 parents in 2010, 2013, and 2016, asking about what they ordered for children between ages 2 and 11 in the past week. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed were moms aged 25 to 40, and most had two or more children in that age range.

Kids Are Eating Fast Food More Frequently

Researchers found children are eating fast food more often. In 2016, 91 percent of parents reported purchasing lunch or dinner for their child in the past week at one of the four largest chains, up from 79 percent in 2010. Families visited McDonald’s the most.

Study authors say low cost and increased value of fast-food meals, convenience and easy access, and a documented increase in fast-food advertising to children could account for the increase in consumption of fast food meals.

“We know that fast food offers parents a convenient, affordable option for feeding their families. But restaurants have a responsibility to make these affordable, convenient foods healthier. Most fast-food meals – even kids’ meals – have more fat, sugar, and sodium than children need, and eating this kind of unhealthy food can have negative health consequences over time, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health issues,” said Harris.

Other findings include:

  • Nearly all parents responded positively to healthier kids’ meal policies at the specific restaurant they visited, and said the policy would make them purchase food for their child at that restaurant more often.
  • One-third of parents who purchased lunch or dinner for their child at a fast-food restaurant did not purchase a kids’ meal, and this was true for both younger children (ages 2-5) and older children (ages 6-11). They purchased regular menu items, which include adult-sized portions and tend to be less nutritious than kids’ meal items.
  • Fifty percent of children who received a kids’ meal got a healthier side item, and 59 percent received a healthier kids’ meal drink.
  • In general, parents are purchasing healthier options for their younger children (ages 2-5) than for older kids (ages 6-11) at fast-food restaurants. Across all three years studied, parents were significantly more likely to buy only a kids’ meal, and not another menu item on top of it, for a younger child than for an older child (64 percent versus 46 percent, respectively). Parents were also more likely to receive a healthier drink when purchasing a kids’ meal for a younger child than for an older child (66 percent versus 50 percent, respectively).
  • Some restaurants have implemented new practices that add on extra fat, sugar, and calories, such as providing desserts with kids’ meals (some Dairy Queen and some Subway locations), or offering a dessert in place of a kids’ meal toy (some Burger King locations).

“Given parents’ positive attitudes about kids’ meal policies, and how often families are visiting these restaurants today, fast-food companies have a substantial marketing opportunity to better promote the healthier options inside their restaurants,” said Harris.

Since 2010, the four largest fast-food restaurant chains have pledged to offer healthier drinks and side options in kids’ meals, and not list sugary soda as a kids’ meal option on menu boards. A previous UConn Rudd Center study conducted in 2016 found wide variation in how well individual restaurant locations implemented those commitments.

Subway is the only fast-food restaurant studied that voluntarily includes only healthier side and drink options with kids’ meals in their restaurants nationwide.

Study authors say restaurants should automatically provide healthy drinks and sides as the default choices with kids’ meals, and point to the need for regulations that would mandate those policies.

The State of California, several cities and counties there, and cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, have all passed policies requiring restaurants to offer healthier drinks as the automatic option with kids’ meals. New York City, Washington, D.C., and other municipalities are considering similar legislation. In Louisville, Kentucky, legislation was recently enacted requiring healthier drinks as well as fruit, vegetable, whole grain, or lean protein as part of a kids’ meal.

Support for the study was provided by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Co-authors include Maia Hyary, Yoon-Young Choi, and Nicole Seymour of the UConn Rudd Center.