Junk Food

California makes restaurant kids’ meals healthier, puts children’s health first

On Tuesday, California became the first state to pass explicit legislation holding restaurants more accountable for children’s health. The new law, referred to as the “healthy kids’ meal bill,” requires that restaurants include healthy beverages like milk or water as the default with their kids’ meals. Though children or their accompanying adult(s) may still request to substitute the child’s default drink with a more sugary alternative like juice or soda, policymakers hope this menu change will reduce kids’ consumption of unhealthy drinks at restaurants. This change comes after six top chain restaurants—including Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Dairy Queen—already have taken soda off their kids’ menus altogether.

This kind of legislation had started in several California localities before becoming state law. Right now, other cities like New York City, Baltimore, and Louisville are considering implementing a similar bill. California’s precedent sends an important message to beverage industries, which have previously lobbied against public health measures that potentially threaten sales: “the movement to address sugary drink consumption and protect public health marches forward,” the Center for Science and Public Interest reports.


The notion that requiring “opting-out” of a default healthier choice will lead to more of its use than requiring “opting-in” is not new. In fact, behavioral economists have long studied this type of subtle nudging, and it already exists in many legislations around us. For example, schools expect enrollees to have received certain immunizations before the start of classes. Of course, students can receive exemptions from this stipulation, but if these immunizations were optional altogether, then schools would see many fewer students getting their shots than they do under the current “opting-out” scheme.

California’s new policy shows the state’s commitment to improving children’s health. If previous “opting-out” laws are any indication, their “healthy kids’ meal bill” will be able to reduce aggregate sugary drink consumption, while still ultimately preserving consumer choice. This is only one small step toward encouraging healthier diets for kids, but it is a step forward nonetheless.

Fast Food, Slow Improvements - Kids' Meals Today

Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera Bread made headlines when he challenged CEOs of other fast food restaurant chains to try eating their kids’ meal menus for a week. He says that the CEOs of Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s have yet to respond to this challenge. Of course, NPR points out that kids’ meals at Panera Bread aren’t exactly the healthiest either. For example, their mac and cheese has even more sodium than a four-piece chicken nugget option offered by these rival chains.


When it comes to kids’ meals, the first things that come to mind can be chicken nuggets, fries, and soft drinks. However, these food options and food chains are so common that it is difficult to avoid them. It’s imperative that companies make real efforts to improve the content and quality of kids’ meals.


As a way to address this issue, Panera Bread will include smaller portioned version of the main menu to their existing kids’ menu. That way, kids’ can have a wider variety of ingredients in their meals at Panera Bread. Other chains have also made important changes to kids’ menus. For example, apple slices are now standard in every McDonald’s Happy Meal. They are also making efforts to replace fountain drinks in kids’ meals with milk and low-sugar fruit juice options instead.


There is still a long way to go before kids’ meals at fast food restaurants actually offer fiber-rich, fresh vegetable-filled, whole grain-dense meals that health experts recommend. Until then, as consumers, we should be aware of ongoing improvements and treat kids’ meals as something to eat sparingly.


Childhood Staple, Harmful Chemical?

A recent study, described in the New York Times, found that many types of boxed mac and cheese contain phthalates, a potentially harmful chemical that has already been banned in children’s toys. According to the article, phthalates are “industrial chemicals used to soften plastics and are used as solvents, in adhesives and in ink on packaging.”


Although the chemical interferes with hormones and has been linked to birth defects, the FDA has yet to ban phthalates. The chemical can be found in many processed foods, including mac and cheese. Two million boxes of mac and cheese are sold a day in the United States. Among the types of mac and cheese tested for phthalates, “organic” varieties also tested positive for the chemical with some products containing as many as six different phthalates.


Since processed foods are often more affordable and accessible than fresh, unprocessed foods, children with less access to healthy foods might be more risk for health problems. Even processed foods labeled as “organic” are likely to be more expensive yet do not offer the clear superiorities to other foods that might be implied.


The findings in the article show that it can be difficult to avoid dangerous chemicals, especially found in many unprocessed food. It will take real effort on the part of the consumer as well as regulatory bodies in order to protect children’s health.