A number of restaurant chains, among them Burger King, IHOP, Denny’s and Sizzler, plan to add healthier meals for children to their standard menus. So far, 19 chains, which collectively operate about 15,000 restaurants nationwide, have agreed to participate in a new initiative, called “Kids Live Well.”
Restaurants Claim to Be More Health-Conscious
Some Critics Call It a Sly Move
To be part of the program, which is completely voluntary, restaurants will have to offer more servings of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains. They will also have to put at least one meal on their kids’ menus that has no more than 600 calories and 35 percent fat and sugar.
The National Restaurant Association (NRA), the primary sponsor of the initiative, sees it as an important step to provide families with healthier options and to make it easier for parents to choose more wisely on behalf of their children. While the participating chains will still be able to feature traditional items, like hamburgers, chicken nuggets, French fries and sodas, their customers will now have alternative choices that were not available to them before.
Ype von Hengst, the founder and CEO of Silver Diner, one of the participating restaurants, agrees that the time has come for the industry to do its part in the fight against obesity, especially when it affects so many children. “I think we all have […] a moral obligation to give our kids better and healthier food,” he said. “Kids are not born with chicken tenders in one hand and macaroni and cheese in the other. If that’s all we’re going to give them in restaurants, that all they’re going to eat.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has welcomed the NRA plan as well. “This is a great start to help empower consumers – kids and parents especially – with more choices at restaurants,” said Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
Others are more skeptical. “It’s a baby step,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group. “It’s not enough to have one healthy option in a minefield of high calories, high fat and high salt,” she said. Last year, CSPI sued McDonald’s for using toys to lure children into its restaurants. (McDonald’s is not among the participants in the “Kids Live Well” program.)
Critics see a familiar pattern in this latest initiative. This plan, like many others the industry has brought forth in the past, sets the mark conveniently low, they say. It is designed to be modest and doesn’t ask for many changes. Most of the cooperating restaurants already meet these requirements, but either way the measures fall far short of the standards desired by nutrition experts and government regulators.
Advocacy groups like CSPI say the program has nothing to do with wanting to provide healthier eating options for children. They see it as another maneuver to prevent government from taking further regulatory action. “This is a typical industry tactic of a pre-emptive move,” said Wootan. “Rather than have government come up with the standards […], they want to develop them themselves.”
The federal government will soon require all restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets to post calorie counts on their menus. That may be a good first step, but by itself it will not help to improve people’s eating habits. The problem is that the nutritional quality of the meals many of these restaurants offer is so poor that a little tweaking here and there won’t make much of a difference.
The industry must do more than simply change its image – it must change the ways it has done business for decades. This will not happen either through regulatory changes, for which there will always be plenty of loopholes, or voluntary window dressing. The only thing that will make a difference in the long run is consumer demand. If that changes, all else will eventually follow.