The study surveyed 800 parents in 2010, 2013, and 2016 about what their child (2- to 11-years-old) ordered at the top four fast food chains (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Subway).
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% vs. 46%, 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% versus 50%).
Kids eating fast food more often
A major finding of the study is that kids are eating fast food more often with parents citing low cost, convenience, and easy access as the main drivers to fast food meal purchases.
In 2016, 91% of parents reported purchasing lunch or dinner for their child in the past week at one of the four largest chains, up from 79% in 2010. Families visited McDonald's (which recently announced improvements to its Happy Meal menu) the most, researchers noted.
"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," lead author Jennifer Harris, director of marketing Initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, said.
Industry efforts falling flat?
The fast food industry has made efforts to improve the nutritional standards of their kids meals such as McDonald’s move to limit the calories in its Happy Meals to 600 or fewer calories.
Since 2010, the top four fast food chains – McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Subway – have pledged to offer healthier drinks and side for kids and not list soda as a kids’ meal option on its menus.
Despite these efforts, parents and kids are still opting for or automatically receiving sugary soda and French fries with their kids’ meal orders, researchers reported.
"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,” Harris claimed.
In some cases, restaurants have implemented new practices that add on extra fat, sugar, and calories, such as providing desserts with kids' meals (including some Dairy Queen and some Subway locations, according to researchers), or offering a dessert in place of a kids' meal toy (some Burger King locations).
“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."
Healthy drinks and sides as an automatic option
Study authors said restaurants should automatically provide healthy drinks and sides with kids meals.
"They should also make more meaningful changes on the menu. Fast-food restaurants have said they want to be part of the solution to childhood obesity. They can start by making the healthier drinks and sides the default options in kids' meals and introducing healthier kids' meal main dishes, which remain high in fat, sodium, and calories," Harris said.
The state of California and cities including Baltimore, Maryland, have all passed policies requiring restaurants to offer healthier drinks as the automatic option with kids meals. Other cities including New York City and Washington D.C. are considering similar pieces of legislation.
According to the study, nearly all parents surveyed responded positively to healthier kids meal policies and said the policy would compel them to purchase food at the restaurant more often.
"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," Harris said.
Learn more about how children’s menus are evolving and other changes in food service to help kids eat healthier at FoodNavigator-USA’s FOOD FOR KIDS summit Nov. 12-15, 2018 in Chicago. Get all the event details HERE.