Restaurant Industry Launches Healthful Kids Meals Initiative

19 Chains Including Burger King Join Kids LiveWell Program

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"You want milk or apples with that ?" is a statement some restaurant patrons could soon be hearing when ordering kids meals.

The National Restaurant Association, in conjunction with Healthy Dining, launched Kids LiveWell, a first-of -its kind voluntary initiative by the restaurant industry to spur chains to offer and promote healthier kids-meal options.

Burger King's Chicken Tenders kids meal with 'apple fries'
Burger King's Chicken Tenders kids meal with 'apple fries'

While some may view the news as the result of mounting pressure on the restaurant industry from slew of nutritional and consumer activists, others may put the initiative squarely in the camp of companies just covering their hides. But Dawn Sweeney, president-CEO of the National Restaurant Association, in a statement said, "Kids LiveWell underscores that restaurants can be part of the solution to ensuring a healthier generation and providing consumer choice in dining options."

To join the initiative, restaurants must agree to offer and promote a selection of items that meet nutritional criteria based on health organizations' scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, including: one kids meal with 600 calories or less that has two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy, with less than 35% of calories coming from fat and sugar; offer at least one other individual item with 200 calories or less, with less than 35% of calories coming from fat and sugar and containing a serving of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein or low-fat dairy; display or make available upon request the nutrition profile of the healthful menu options; and promote the healthful menu options.

Burger King, the country's second-largest burger chain, will not automatically include fries in kids meals. But employees will instead ask parents whether they want apple fries or milk with the offering. "We thought this was a way to showcase the things we're doing with kids meals," said Craig Prusher, VP-government relations for Burger King. "And it shows that there a lot of companies that are making strides to provide healthier-for-you kids options."

Mr. Prusher added that Burger King already offers three kids meals that meet the Kids LiveWell criteria including a chicken tenders meal with 30% less sodium. He also said the fast feeder has been a part of the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative , which was launched in late 2006 and includes 17 companies -- the majority of them packaged goods companies with the exception of Burger King and McDonald's. Members of the CFBAI have pledged to improve the health content of their products and change their marketing strategies. (The CFBAI is expected to announce this morning the "latest step forward in the on-going efforts to improve food and beverage advertising to children," according to a media advisory.)

Other participants in Kids LiveWell include Chili's, Corner Bakery Cafe, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, El Pollo Loco, Friendly's and IHOP. In total there are 19 chains representing 15,000 locations in the U.S.

Noticeably missing from that list is McDonald's, a chain that has been under fire from activists regarding the way it markets its Happy Meals to children. "McDonald's has been a long-time supporter of the NRA and Healthy Dining Finder -- among other programs -- that advance the discussion of nutrition awareness," said a spokeswoman in an email to Ad Age . "We listen to our customers and continue to provide balanced menu options, including meals for our youngest guests. We will evaluate participation in this program in the future." McDonald's offers its Apple Dippers with caramel sauce as a side option for its Happy Meals.

Also missing from the list is Jack in the Box, which recently eliminated toys from kids meals and rolled out Chiquita Apple Bites With Caramel as an additional option for a side dish in combo meals aimed at children.

But the initiative has left some groups skeptical. "Most restaurants already offer one or two healthy choices -- but they are present amidst a minefield of high-calorie, salty, high-fat options," Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. "The great majority of choices on children's menus should be healthy, given that kids are getting one-third of their calories outside the home, and eating out is linked to obesity."

Ms. Wootan did, however, applaud Burger King for its effort. "Restaurants -- especially McDonald's, which is not part of the new initiative -- should follow Burger King's lead and not just shove fries and soft drinks into kids' meals, but ask parents if they want a fruit or vegetable side dish and milk, juice, or water instead."

CSPI has long been fighting for healthier kids meals and to get fast feeders to eliminate marketing to kids. In December it filed a class action lawsuit against McDonald's Corp., aimed at stopping the chain's use of toys to market directly to children.

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