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Study finds people most buying fast-food kids’ meals choose less-healthy options

french fries
Photo: Juanmonino/iStockphoto

Storrs, CT — Although fast-food restaurants may offer healthier side and drink options for their kids’ meals, “many do little to make parents aware of the healthier options or to encourage parents to choose the healthier options instead of unhealthy ones,” claims a researcher at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences at UConn, led a team that analyzed responses from 2,468 parents who had bought lunch or dinner for their children at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or Subway in the week prior, combining results from separate online surveys in 2010, 2013 and 2016. Findings showed that 74 percent of participants still purchased meals with unhealthy side or drink items despite restaurants’ pledges to offer more wholesome alternatives.

In 2016, 59 percent of kids’ meals were served with healthier drinks such as low-fat milk or 100 percent juice – unchanged from 2010. Although half of the meals in 2016 included a healthier side such as yogurt or apple slices, 61 percent came with an unhealthy option such as fries or chips, reflecting some restaurants’ policies to offer two sides.

“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,” Harris said in a Sept. 27 press release.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • In 2016, 91 percent of parents reported buying fast food for their children in the past week, twice a week on average. The figure rose from 79 percent in 2010 and 83 percent in 2013.
  • 75 percent of parents in 2016 said they would visit a restaurant more frequently because of healthier kids’ meal options.
  • Across the three surveys, parents were more likely to select a healthier kids’ meals drink for children ages 2 to 5 (66 percent) than those ages 6 to 11 (50 percent).

The researchers recommend that restaurants automatically provide healthier side and drink options with kids’ meals, and that health advocates and policymakers continue to encourage fast-food restaurants to heighten the meals’ nutritional value.

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