Restaurants Cutting Calories for Kids
ATLANTA — In moves that could signal a growing demand for healthier food in convenient formats, many fast food and casual dining restaurants have updated their menus with healthy options or have announced plans to design new items with less calories, sodium and fat.
Due to the influence of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative and the medical community’s growing concern about the rise of childhood obesity, kids’ meals have often been a focus for overhaul.
Last week, Chick-fil-A here became the latest major chain to announce a revamped, healthier kids’ meal. The new meal now includes grilled chicken nuggets and a squeezable fruit pouch, and the kid’s meal beverage options will now be limited to 1% milk, apple juice, lemonade or water.
With four grilled nuggets, a fruit cup and low fat milk, the new meal contains 210 calories and 3 grams of fat, an 86% decrease in fat and a 56% decrease in calories from previous offerings, according to Chick-fil-A.
The chain will continue offering higher calorie entrees and sides as children’s menu options. For instance, a kids’ meal that includes six breaded nuggets, fries and low-fat chocolate milk is 660 calories and 27 grams of fat, according to the company’s website.
Chick-fil-A spokesperson Jerry Johnston could not provide an exact time frame for how long Chick-fil-A has been developing the new menu, but the chain has been working on it for some time.
“We do market research, taste tests, focus groups, things of this nature and then this is the result of our research into this new offering,” said Johnston.
At this point Chick-fil-A is primarily getting the word out about the new kids’ meals through communication in-store, according to Johnston.
Chick-fil-A’s new kids menu follows McDonald’s commitment last summer to cut calories in Happy Meals by 20% and automatically include apples in each meal by the end of the first quarter in 2012.
Recent nutritional changes to menus have not been limited to kids’ meals. In the fall, Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, said it would reduce calories and sodium in menus by 10% within five years and 20% in 10, and that it would “closely look at reformulating, resizing and removing certain items, and introducing new calorie conscious, flavorful choices,” according to plans published by the company.
Darden Restaurants will also make 1% milk the default beverage for kids; offer fruits and vegetables as sides; and redevelop menus to meet specific nutrition standards.
These companies could be reacting to growing demand for convenient, healthier foods for both kids and parents, but it remains to be seen how these new menu items will be received in the market.
“It will only make an impact if people buy the products,” said Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “The best thing that restaurant chains could do for health would be to offer smaller portions at a favorable price.”
Nestle was skeptical about Chick-fil-A’s motivation, attributing the effort to market expansion “and looking like it is on the side of the angels.”
“The company must think it has an audience for the product and can sell it. Either that, or this is just PR,” Nestle said.
Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm, said that these changes make sense when they stay true to the broader, core restaurant brand. He gave the example of Chick-fil-A’s recent addition of grilled chicken nuggets that aren’t breaded or fried.
“It’s what the brand represents, and it sounds like a good, suitable alternative.”