French fries, slathered with ketchup and washed down with a pint of soda, are a favorite part of fast-food lunches and dinners for millions of American youngsters.
But taking a cue from nutritionists, a group of 19 restaurant companies are pledging to offer more-healthful menu options for children at a time when concern is growing over the role of fast food in childhood obesity.
Burger King, the nation’s second-largest burger chain, for instance, will stop automatically including French fries and soda in its kids’ meals starting this month, although the items will still be available.
Instead, the company said Tuesday, its employees will ask parents whether they prefer such options as milk or sliced apples before assembling the meals.
“We’re asking the customers to specify what they want,” said Craig Prusher, the chain’s vice president of government relations. Fries and soft drinks are “no longer a default decision,” he added.
Other participating chains, with a variety of menu options, include Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Friendly’s, Chevy’s and El Pollo Loco.
As part of the Kids Live Well campaign — expected to be announced nationwide Wednesday — participating restaurants must promise to offer at least one children’s meal that has fewer than 600 calories, no soft drinks and at least two items from the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins or low-fat dairy.
Among other requirements, they must offer a side dish that meets similar criteria, with fewer than 200 calories and less than 35% of its calories from sugar.
“Restaurants can be part of the solution to ensuring a healthier generation and providing consumer choice in dining options,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Assn., which developed the program. “We look forward to announcing additional restaurants and meal options in the coming months.” All told, she said, the participating chains have 15,000 locations nationwide.
At Burger King, three kids’ meals that meet the criteria will be featured on posters throughout the company’s stores and in its advertisements, Prusher said.
They include a breakfast sandwich, a burger and chicken tenders with less sodium. All three come with apple slices and a choice of juice or milk.
“This is really a huge first step for the restaurant industry in creating and offering and promoting healthier options,” said Anita Jones-Mueller, a nutritionist and restaurant consultant who helped develop the program for the restaurant association. “These are really stringent criteria.”
More-healthful kids’ menu items from the restaurants will be included on Jones-Mueller’s website, Healthydiningfinder.com, and in many cases will be featured on menus at the restaurants themselves.
Noticeably absent from the group of participating restaurant chains is McDonald’s. The world’s largest hamburger chain, which has been criticized recently for the way it markets its products to children, said it was already providing balanced menu options for children and adults.
“We listen to our customers and continue to provide balanced menu options, including meals for our youngest guests,” said spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling. “We will evaluate participation in this program in the future.”
Jones-Mueller said she hoped the Oak Brook, Ill., giant would sign on eventually. “They indicated that they were interested, but they need more time,” she said.
Participating restaurants varied in the degree to which they modified their children’s meals as part of the campaign. Denny’s reformulated a pasta dinner to meet the criteria, adding a vegetable side dish.
IHOP, by contrast, hopes parents will work with its current offerings. The company has one kids’ meal that meets the Kids Live Well criteria, tilapia with a side of broccoli. Parents can cobble together other meals that meet the standards by adding fruit to a pancake breakfast, for example, but that combination is not standard, said spokeswoman Jennifer Pendergrass.
El Pollo Loco is working on several new menu items for children, said spokeswoman Julie Weeks. They will be available at the end of the year, and some are being developed with the new standards in mind. Until then, children’s meals will only qualify for the campaign if parents choose side dishes that meet the criteria, she said.
Nutrition advocate Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest praised Burger King’s decision to stop making fries and soft drinks the automatic choice for children. Studies have shown, she said, that most people go with the default option, so the company’s move may significantly change what people order.
“By changing the default, that can really make a difference in what parents order for their children,” she said.
But Wootan expressed skepticism of the broader industry campaign, because restaurants will be able to qualify for the program if they have just one meal and one side dish that meet the criteria.
“The standards themselves look reasonable,” Wootan said. “The problem is they should be applying those standards to all their children’s meals. Not just one.”