- A survey of 800 parents from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that in 2016, 91% of parents purchased lunch or dinner at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s or Subway in the past week. This is up from 79% in 2010.
- The researchers posit that families are eating at fast food restaurants more often because chains are offering healthier menu items such as milk, yogurt and fruit for kids. But the study found that despite these options, children are still eating the less-healthy meals and sides.
- Lead author Jennifer Harris told CBS News that many fast food employees include less-healthy sides as a default in kids' meals, without offering the option of more nutritional items. “In many cases, parents aren’t being given the chance to make a decision," she told the news outlet. "They are getting unhealthy sides and drinks automatically … It should be the other way around.”
Quick-service chains have been making a concerted effort to offer healthier food and beverage options for the past few years, responding to consumer demands and activist pressure. McDonald’s, for example, first partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2013, with an objective of increasing fruit and vegetable options on the chain’s menu. The Rudd Center’s research, however, suggests that initiatives like this haven't made much of an impact on consumers’ eating habits.
If restaurant chains have an interest in contributing to healthier lifestyles — and many have indicated that they do — and also selling their (often higher-margin) healthier menu items, they may need to adopt specific policies mandating that front-of-the-house employees offer them automatically. QSRs may be wise to provide intensive training for those employees on how to better sell those items, as well.
Chains could also elevate healthier items from substitute to default status. Subway is currently the only QSR studied that voluntarily includes only healthier side and drink options with kids' meals in their restaurants nationwide. Policies in California and Baltimore require restaurants to offer healthier drinks as the automatic option with kids’ meals, and chains would be wise to proactively follow suit, especially in light of this research.
A 12% jump in weekly quick-service restaurant visits in only six years illustrates just how busy families have become, so there is plenty of opportunity for chains to influence better eating habits. Of course, the responsibility falls mostly on parents to be judicious about what they feed their children, but considering the ubiquity and convenience of QSRs, these chains have an opportunity to brighten their health halo and improve childhood nutrition.
Menu innovation will be key to achieving both these goals, and healthier kids' options should be added to restaurants' regular research and development cadence. Chick-fil-A, for example, added grilled chicken nuggets to its kids’ meals in 2012, making it the first QSR in the industry to offer a grilled children's entree. With more menu items like this, QSRs can use their size and influence can help change the narrative that French fries and kids' meals are synonymous.