In fact, according to research from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health on 20 popular quick-serve chains, meal bundles that include at least one fruit and one non-fried vegetable increased on the menu by nearly 58 percentage points between 2004 and 2015—from less than one quarter of bundles to about 80 percent of them. Overall, 30 percent of the chains studied provided healthier kid choices by 2015.
Restaurant meals are associated with kids eating more calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat and less fiber, says Megan Mueller, assistant researcher at the Fielding School of Public Health. Still, her research points to more quick serves than full-service restaurants offering healthier dishes to kids. “While there has been progress toward offering healthier children’s menu items, there’s still room to make changes that make it easier for children to eat healthy when they eat out,” she says. “For example, more restaurants could start offering fruits and non-fried vegetable sides by default in kids’ meals.”
Beverages are another area of concern for children when dining out, and research released in July by the Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that sugary drinks are less prevalent now on kids’ menus than they used to be. The research showed that, of the top 50 restaurant chains, 39 have children’s menus, and, of those brands that tout kids’ menus, 61 percent push sugary drinks for kids—a significant drop from 93 percent in 2008. McDonald’s announced in 2013 that it would offer only water, milk, and juice with its Happy Meals. Wendy’s nixed sugary drinks from kids’ menus in 2014, followed by Burger King and Dairy Queen a year later. “Since over one-third of children in the U.S. eat out on any given day, restaurants are uniquely positioned to encourage healthy eating among children,” Mueller says. “Offering more healthy options on children’s meals, bundling healthier sides and beverages with all meals, and advertising healthier options are some of the many ways restaurants can help encourage healthy eating.”