More on Children’s Menus: An Interview with Anita Jones-Mueller of Healthy Dining

Back in July, 2011 I told you about Kids Live Well, a program created by the National Restaurant Association to improve the often-dismal offerings on most chain restaurant children’s menus.

But in late March of this year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a damning report which found that 97% of the restaurant children’s menus surveyed still failed to meet CSPI’s nutritional criteria,with items like chicken nuggets, soda, burgers and fries continuing to dominate most chain restaurant kids’ meals.

I thought it might be interesting to hear from the restaurant industry about CSPI’s findings, so I contacted Healthy Dining, the organization whose registered dietitians worked with the National Restaurant Association to develop the Kids Live Well program and who validate qualifying menu choices.  Anita Jones-Mueller, President of Healthy Dining, agreed to speak with me and here is our interview:

TLT:  Children reportedly consume 25% of their daily calories at restaurants, so clearly the offerings on children’s menus can have a real impact on the health of our kids.  That said, on a philosophical level, do you feel it’s the responsibility of the restaurant industry to provide healthful offerings, or do you feel it’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure a child eats well while dining out?

 AJM: I think it takes both: Restaurants generally can’t keep healthful items on the menu if they don’t sell, and if healthful choices aren’t offered on menus, it makes it really hard for parents to reinforce the healthy eating habits they are teaching at home. I think we are in a very exciting time of change right now. More than ever before, our company, Healthy Dining, is seeing the number of restaurants dedicated to offering healthful menu choices growing. And as important, the demand by parents and children for healthier choices is growing, too. So we are thrilled to see such positive change on both sides … which can make a big difference for our nation’s kids and future generations. So that is exciting change!

TLT:  Almost two years after the National Restaurant Association announced its Kids Live Well initiative to improve children’s menus, CSPI’s has issued a new report indicating that nearly all of the kids’ meals at America’s top 50 chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality, with 97% of meals failing to meet CSPI’s own nutritional criteria and 91% failing to meet the Kids Live Well nutritional criteria. What do you make of this finding?

AJM:  It is not accurate to say that nearly all the kids meals are of poor nutritional quality based on the fact that they didn’t meet CSPI’s criteria. That is very strict criteria which is not appropriate for many children because every child has varying needs for the amounts of calories and other nutrients, based on age, size, physical activity levels, etc. For instance, any meal that has more than 430 calories was included in the “97%.” I know that after a gymnastics practice, my daughter, who is in a continual growth spurt, needs more than 430 calories for dinner. So having more than 430 calories doesn’t mean her meal is of poor nutritional quality, and in fact, the calories could be packed with nutrients that she needs to grow and learn and thrive. So I think the way the results of the study were messaged was very misleading. Also, the sodium criterion of no more than 770 mg. further restricts a lot of otherwise healthful menu choices. For example, a turkey sandwich with provolone cheese on whole grain bread can add up to 850 mg. of sodium because the bread, turkey, mustard, cheese and pickle slices all contain sodium. So even though I consider the turkey sandwich a very nutritious meal for my kids, it would be included in the “97%.”  Other healthful kids items such as teriyaki salmon or BBQ chicken generally don’t fit the sodium criterion. Personally, I don’t focus as much on the nutrition numbers for my kids, but more so I teach them about always including healthful ingredients in every meal and snack. So I want them to look for lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats on the menus. My philosophy is that if the plate has primarily healthful ingredients, then the nutrition numbers will all average out over the course of the day or week. And that also leaves room for occasional desserts, pizza parties, birthday parties and other fun parts of life. I really like the MyPlate icon because it is easy to apply to every meal.

I respect CSPI for their efforts in trying to improve public health, and I think the major take-away from the CSPI study is that there is room for improvement in kids’ meals served at restaurants. Our nation’s kids should be treated to the wonderful flavors of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein as often as possible. And I see that such improvement is happening! I am so impressed with how quickly the Kids LiveWell Program is growing. Healthy Dining’s team worked together with the National Restaurant Association to launch the Kids LiveWell program in July, 2011.  Since then, it has grown from 19 participating restaurant companies to more than 130 companies, spanning more than 40, 000 locations all over the nation … and growing every week! Healthy Dining’s dietitians consult with each restaurant that signs up for the Kids LiveWell Program and they tell me all the time how rewarding it is to hear the chefs’ excitement and dedication to creating and offering the Kids LiveWell choices.

TLT:  It’s important to note that only 11 of the 50 chains studied by CSPI are participants in the Kids Live Well program (only 10 of which were studied because one didn’t offer nutritional data).  But that said, only 11% of the children’s meals from those ten chains meet the Kids LiveWell standards.  Do you feel that’s a sufficient level of compliance?  

AJM:  I think there are a few things to consider: 1) New restaurants are joining the Kids LiveWell Program all the time. So rather than focusing on whether that is enough, I think it is best to reinforce the efforts of those restaurants that are leading this effort. If the participating restaurants find that the Kids LiveWell choices are popular with kids, that will spur them to create and offer more Kids LiveWell choices. And that will also spur more restaurants to join the program. 2) Restaurants are telling us that they are working to revamp their kids meals and add healthier choices. And the reality is that this can take time. They tell us that they don’t want to serve choices that kids don’t like, so they are investing time and money into developing new items. So again, I think that reinforcing the efforts of restaurants that are offering healthier kids choices now is the first step. You can find all the participating restaurants on HealthyDiningFinder.com. Also, telling your favorite restaurants that healthful choices are important to your family is a great way to get more restaurants involved.  3) The CSPI study only looked at the large chains, and many of the restaurants that have joined the Kids LiveWell Program are smaller chains and neighborhood eateries which weren’t counted in the CSPI report. That is an important advantage of the Kids LiveWell program: restaurants of any size can join the program, and Healthy Dining’s dietitians will work with them to identify ways they can offer healthful choices.

TLT:  Are there plans in the works to encourage participating Kids Live Well chains to make more of their kids’ menu offerings healthier or otherwise improve compliance?

AJM: I think that is where parents have power. The more restaurants hear from their guests that healthier options are important, the more they will want to meet those requests. So as a parent, let your favorite restaurants know that healthier choices are important to you, and show restaurants by ordering the healthier choices that are featured on HealthyDiningFinder.com. That also helps us to inspire more restaurants to join the Healthy Dining Program. Some of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry right now in large part focus on health and nutrition, which means that restaurants are leading those trends, and others will surely be following soon. The National Restaurant Association’s 2013 studies show the top culinary nutrition-related trends include healthful children’s choices, local sourcing,  whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lower-sodium, lower calorie and smaller portions. So this is all good news for those of us who to eat out and want to enjoy high quality, healthful meals!

AJM:  Right now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is finalizing the federal menu labeling provision. That provision will require all restaurant companies with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calories on menus and menu boards and have additional nutrition information (fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, etc.) available within the restaurant setting. Some regions, like the states of California and Oregon, and cities, like Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City, have already implemented some type of menu labeling legislation.  I live in California, so we are used to seeing calories on the menu. Again, I think it is really important to teach kids to look for the healthful components of a meal and not just rely on the calories. For instance, my daughter was looking at a menu board at a Mexican quick service restaurant. She said she wanted the taquitos (fried rolled tacos). I kind of winced and said “that’s fried and it just comes with rice.” And she said, “It’s the one lowest in calories.” I was happy that she was looking at the calories and wanted to make the best choice, so that opened the conversation to talking about how some of the other items, which were higher in calories, were also higher in nutrition value and ultimately wiser choices. So she ended up ordering the soft chicken tacos with corn tortillas, black beans and side salad: more calories but much higher in nutrients.

TLT:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about CSPI’s report and/or the Kids Live Well program?

 AJM:   Yes, we all know it is important to be a good role model as a parent. So of course we can’t order the fries and expect our kids to have the broccoli. HealthyDiningFinder.com features dietitian-approved menu choices for the whole family, so that everyone can dine out as a delicious part of a healthy lifestyle. The site also offers lots of education and inspiration about nutrition through blogs, article and recipes . I have dedicated my career to helping restaurants offer healthier choices. I have always believed that if we can get restaurants excited about applying their culinary creativity and artistry to creating healthful choices, that will bring an exciting dimension to healthy eating. And in the last few years, I feel like we are really seeing that starting to evolve. Restaurants are an important part of life, and I look forward to continuing to inspire healthy change.

Thanks for including me in your blog, Bettina!

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So, TLT readers, what do you think about the current offerings on most children’s menus?  Do you feel you’ve seen any meaningful improvement over the last two years?  Do you rely on kids’ menus when you dine out with your own children?

And for some good strategies for healthful restaurant dining with kids, here’s a nice piece from Real Simple on that topic.  Thanks to Sally of Real Mom Nutrition for posting this on Facebook a while back!

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