The restaurant industry seems to be responding to a growing chorus of concerned voices questioning its role in the childhood obesity epidemic.
The National Restaurant Association, in collaboration with Healthy Dining, today unveiled a nationwide initiative, "Kids LiveWell," that provides parents and children with healthier food and beverage selections when dining out.
Nineteen chains and more than 15,000 restaurant locations nationwide have already signed up to participate in the campaign. Inaugural Kids LiveWell participants include Au Bon Pain, Bonefish Grill, Burger King, Burgerville, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Chevys Fresh Mex, Chili's Grill & Bar, Corner Bakery Cafe, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, El Pollo Loco, Friendly's, IHOP, Joe's Crab Shack, Outback Steakhouse, Silver Diner, Sizzler, T-Bones Great American Eatery and zpizza.
Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA, said she anticipates more restaurants adopting the program and adding healthier menu options in the coming months.
"'Kids LiveWell' underscores that restaurants can be part of the solution to ensuring a healthier generation and providing consumer choice in dining options," she said.
Guidelines to join the program
The voluntary Kids LiveWell initiative entails qualifying criteria based on leading health organizations' scientific recommendations, including the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines. Healthy Dining's team of registered dietitians has worked with participating restaurants to identify and validate the menu choices that meet the criteria, which includes:
- Offer a children's meal (an entree, side and beverage) with 600 calories or less; two servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy; with limits on sodium, fats and sugar;
- Offer at least one other individual item with 200 calories or less, with limits on fats, sugars and sodium, plus contain 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/identify the healthful menu options.
The primary focus of the program is to encourage an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, grains and low-fat dairy, and to limit unhealthy fats, sugars and sodium.
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"Kids LiveWell empowers parents to confidently make informed decisions about their children's meals as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle," said Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, founder of Healthy Dining.
Program's unveiling includes chains' samples
Sweeney and Jones-Mueller joined industry stakeholders, health advocates, parents, children and participating chains at the National Press Club today to unveil the program.
Sweeney said the timing is right for the launch, as the demand is rising.
"We've seen positive trends in the last few years and consumers are more interested in healthful options. Two-thirds of quick-service chains are offering more healthful choices for kids than they did two years ago. We want to seize upon that momentum," she said. "It says a lot about our industry that restaurants are stepping up to the plate."
Brands present at the event had the opportunity to showcase some of their Kids LiveWell options, including Au Bon Pain, with its turkey and Swiss sandwich served on a multigrain baguette.
"Au Bon Pain is a natural fit for the program and we look forward to being a part and seeing the concept grow," said Melissa Cook, the fast casual chain's director of marketing.
One of the few QSRs to sign up early was Burger King Corp. Craig Prusher, vice president, assistant general counsel for the company, said Burger King has three different kids meals available that meet the new program's guidelines. As part of the company's commitment, french fries and soda will no longer be automatically included in kids' meals, although those items will still be available on request. Employees will be expected to ask parents upon ordering if they prefer alternative options such as sliced apples.
Silver Diner's executive chef Ype Von Hengst said his brand's interest stems from a moral obligation to serve better food to children.
"Kids are not born with chicken tenders in one hand and mac and cheese in another. If we don't do this, we're doing kids a disservice," he said.
Finding participants and menu items
The Kids LiveWell website officially launched Tuesday night and includes zip code locators, nutritional criteria, articles written by dietitians and more. Jones-Mueller said a phone app will be launched soon to complement the website.
"I think this is the start of something really big. It's groundbreaking," she said. "Restaurants are food creators, they're trendsetters, and getting them excited about this can make a big difference in helping Americans live better, higher quality lives."
The Kids LiveWell campaign comes at a time when numerous reports have shown a continued increase in obesity rates. Many groups have pointed fingers at the restaurant industry, particular the quick-service segment, for contributing dramatically to those rates by marketing unhealthy meals directly to children. San Francisco has even gone so far as to ban QSR kids' meals that include toys.
"This is a great start to help empower consumers — kids and parents especially — with healthier choices at restaurants," said Dr. Robert C. Post, deputy director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP). "We need more choices to help shift eating patterns to healthier ones."