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Fast-food kids’ meals: Healthier options are available, but are parents choosing them?

Girl eating fast food
Photo: FamVeld/iStockphoto

Hartford, CT — Simply introducing healthier kids’ meal options to fast-food menus hasn’t led to improvements in children’s fast-food consumption, results of a recent study led by researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut show.

The researchers conducted an online survey every three years from 2010 to 2016 to ask nearly 2,100 caregivers who purchased fast food in the past week for a child between the ages of 2 and 11 about their selections. In recent years, fast-food chains have adopted voluntary menu changes such as removing sugary fountain drinks from kids’ meal options and adding sides that include apple slices or yogurt.

Results show that these menu options didn’t drive an increase in selection of healthier choices for children. Overall, 55% of the caregivers reported selecting a kids’ meal for their child; of those, about half chose a healthier drink (56%) and/or side (50%). The caregivers were more likely to order a healthy meal option for a child age 2-5 than those 6 or older, while female caregivers were more likely to select healthy meal options.


The researchers recommend that fast-food restaurants consider improving the nutritional quality of all kids’ meal items, encouraging healthier options via marketing campaigns and ensuring workers default to healthier kids’ drink choices.

“Restaurants must improve the nutrition quality of all items offered in kids’ meals and do more to encourage selection of those healthier options inside the restaurants,” study co-author Jennifer Harris, senior research advisor for marketing initiatives at the center, said in the release. “Simply removing soda from kids’ meal menus will not reduce children’s consumption of other unhealthy fast-food menu items, and it may not increase selection of healthier drinks either.”

The study was published online May 5 in the journal Pediatric Obesity.

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