At fast-food restaurants, healthier items for children’s meals are available — but most kids aren’t getting them. A study of more than 800 families found that 74 percent of children who ate at the four largest restaurant chains still got unhealthy drinks and side items.
University of Connecticut researchers surveyed parents three times between 2010 and 2016 about their children’s fast-food habits. Most of those surveyed were mothers between 25 and 40 years old, with children aged 2 to 11 years.
It’s not that restaurants don’t provide healthier options, but researchers noted several factors at work. The restaurants widely promote their less-healthy options such as French fries and sweetened drinks on signs and menu boards. Healthier foods such fruit, yogurt and low-fat milk are often harder to spot.
And the default choices in children’s fast-food meals are often the unhealthiest ones: Meals will come with French fries, researchers noted, unless a parent asks for an alternative.
Parents need to be vigilant when ordering kids’ meals but restaurant chains could help by providing healthier side items instead of making them a special request, the researchers said.
Healthier options are also an imperative because kids are eating fast food more frequently. Ninety-one percent of parents reported buying a fast-food meal for their child in 2016 — up 12 percent from 2010.
Parents should keep an eye on shifting menus — some chains now offer desserts with kids’ meals or dessert in place of a kids’ meal toy. For kids and adults alike, there’s also a simple path to better eating: Back away from the fries.