McDonald's, Other Fast Casual Restaurants Go 'Healthy' for Kids

Happy MealThere'll be no more focus on french fries and soda as the founding tenets of the kid's meal faith, say competing press releases from McDonald's and the National Restaurant Association (NRA). OK, maybe soda. But french fries will be taken down a notch.

In a roundly lightweight move to stave off concerns that fast food and quick casual dining restaurants are marketing unhealthy food to children, the NRA announced the "Kids LiveWell" initiative while McDonald's said it would add fruit to its Happy Meals and halve the number of french fries it provides.

The Kids LiveWell initiative is voluntary, requiring only that restaurants make one menu item available that is "600 calories or less; two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy; with limits on sodium, fats and sugar" plus one additional item that's only 200 calories.

McDonald's is changing its Happy Meals default option, in some ways making it healthier but in other ways not at all -- it's adding chocolate milk to the choices of beverage, which is marginally better than soda but still has far too much added sugar.With an estimated $3 billion sold in Happy Meals each year, according to an expert consulted by NPR, -- and an untold number of meals sold to parents who would otherwise not visit this kid-friendly restaurant -- McDonald's has a huge interest in keeping parents from revolting. Its "healthy option" Happy Meals were not a huge hit: A study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that only one in 10 customers asked for the Caramel Apple Dippers instead of fries, and of course, these came with a sugar-packed caramel dipping sauce (which is now being phased out). McDonald's envisions a Utopian future in which even non-potato vegetables might be a fry replacement.

Even in Utopia, however, parents want their kids to drink soda. At least that's what a McDonald's spokesperson told The New York Times. "That's what we've really felt all along, that ultimately, it's a parent decision to make about their child's well-being," said Danya Proud, who also mentioned that the elimination of french fries in tests brought customer complaints.

Parents decide to bring their children to fast food restaurants, in large part, because their children are eager to not only eat the hamburgers and drink the soda their parents are deciding to buy them (and to heck with their well-being), but also because they're being marketed toward heavily, with toys and adorable jingly commercials that appear during kids' programming (even the feel-good public TV stations have McDonald's ads). The Rudd Center conducted another study that found that preschoolers see an average of 21% more ads than just six short years ago, in 2003. That's partially why San Francisco banned toys from meals that don't meet certain health requirements.

Even if healthier options are available, chances are these same parents who turn down the apple slices and think their kids should get to have soda instead of 1% unsweetened milk will also barely notice when they turn down the veggie platter or lowfat baked chicken fingers at restaurants that signed onto the Kids LiveWell pledge. With restaurants famous for their very unhealthy choices -- Outback Steakhouse, Friendly's, Denny's and IHOP all come to mind -- joining the campaign, it's hard to see how many children might not just stick with their old faves.

Maybe it's the parents' fault, or maybe it's just the decades we've had to get comfortable with the fare we're supposed to perceive as appropriate for children. When was the last time you went to an unfamiliar family restaurant and didn't see several familiar options -- you know, the chicken fingers and the cheese pizza and the cheeseburger & fries -- delivered along with the crayons and coloring pages? Are we already primed to revolt against the idea of providing healthy (and -- eek! -- unfamiliar) food to our kids?

I hope not. While most of the restaurants included in Tuesday's twin announcements are not on the list of establishments to which I will bring my children ("We NEVER EVER go to McDonald's, and Mom won't EVER let us," my six-year-old told someone gravely this week), there are a few to which I will -- the Pacific Northwest chain Burgerville and the East Coast's Corner Bakery Cafe -- specifically because they've made more healthy options available on their menu. Once they're available, then we as parents have the hard job of teaching our kids to not only love them but to accept that it's all their getting on a regular basis.

It's a lot easier, of course, when you stay out of restaurants altogether. But Americans as a whole haven't really started doing this yet. But with more and more news items highlighting the obesity epidemic that's been visited on our kids, it's only a matter of time before that happens.

So consider this a reluctant half-step of desperation on the part of quick-service restaurants. At least act like you care, right?
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