Kids' menus challenged on nutritional content

Menus aimed at young diners are changing, but do those changes go far enough?
Paolo Beldran eats a healthy choice meal at Burger King. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese are staples on kids' menus, sometimes with a toy on the side. But those standbys are slowly changing even in unlikely places.

McDonald's is replacing french fries with salads and apple slices in its kids' meals. Soft drinks are no longer a default, and the company is offering books instead of toys in some countries.

In much of the world, kids eat like grownups. Few have the option of breaded, fried bits of food shaped like dinosaurs or happy faces.

But that's become a default in North America, where restaurants have dumbed down the dishes for kids for the last several generations.

A McDonald's cheeseburger Happy Meal with the new apple slices option. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It all began in the 1920s — with Prohibition — and the birth of more family friendly restaurants. Take the iconic Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where adults feasted on asparagus tips, Waldorf salads and Venetian ice cream, while kids were offered stoically bland dishes like flaked chicken, boiled rice, and a plain broiled lamb chop with a side of prune whip.

It was, in a sense, the beginning of the kids' menu, one that gave diners the notion that kids needed something plainer and simpler than the dishes served to grownups.

And it was the selection of items that, for a decade or so, was almost ubiquitous for kids in high-end North American restaurants. It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that the modern standardized kids menu took off.

Nigel Taylor is the sous-chef at Spinnakers, a brewpub in Victoria and he's used to seeing typical kids' menu fare. "It's not what I'd serve my daughter... but I understand it as a practice for places that don't expect to see younger guests all the time."

Taylor's menu is a little braver, essentially following the same culinary values on both the normal menu and the one for kids. He offers grilled salmon with roast vegetables, for example offering smaller portions for smaller diners. It's a style of children's menu that is trickling into the rest of the industry.

McDonald's may be offering apple slices, albeit with caramel sauce, and chocolate milk, which is nominally better than pop and fries, but critics continue suggesting the changes don't go far enough.

A study by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest earlier this year suggested that 97 per cent of kids' meals in the U.S. still don't meet basic nutritional requirements.

Margo Wootan is the Centre's nutrition policy director, she says kids typically eat twice as many calories from a restaurant meal than a meal at home.

"They eat more calories, more saturated fats, more sugar and fewer whole grains, fruits and vegetables when they eat out," she says.

Wootan also says kids' menus specifically encourage kids and parents to make poor choices, and nutritionists aren't the only ones incensed at the offerings.

Last month an article by food writer Michele Humes suggested abolishing kids' menus altogether, not only for the sake of nutrition but for the sake of helping kids find more joy in eating.

Humes argues restaurants could take a page from some other parts of world, like India or China, where the divisions between kid-food and grownup-food have never really existed, and kids are presented with the same choices as any other diner.


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