Melissa Musiker is a registered dietician and a member of APCO’s Washington, D.C., health policy team.
The term “kid food” conjures images of chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza, mac and cheese, hot dogs or French fries. “Healthy food,” meanwhile, brings to mind apples, broccoli, kale, fat-free yogurt, steamed chicken or fiber-dense cereal. The imagery is dichotomous, but that may be starting to change. Recent changes to the National School Lunch Program and children’s menus in quick-serve and casual-dining restaurants are likely to have a significant impact on the way we think about kid food in this country.
As a result of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture additional funds to improve the nutritional quality of the federally reimbursable meals sold through school feeding programs. Changes to school lunch menus based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been under development for the past 18 months and will go into effect starting this school year. These changes include:
- Both fruits and vegetables will be offered at lunch every day of the week
- More whole grain-rich foods will be on the menu
- Only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties will be offered
- Calorie limits will be put in place to ensure age-appropriate, kid-sized portions are served
- There will be decreases in the saturated fat, trans fat and sodium content of the food
As kids become accustomed to this new norm for school meals, restaurants have also been rethinking what they are putting on kids’ plates. In July 2011, the Kids LiveWell program was created by the National Restaurant Association in partnership with Healthydiningfinder.com. Kids LiveWell is a voluntary program designed to help kids and parents make healthier choices when eating away from home. Like the updates to the National School Lunch Program, nutrition criteria for Kids LiveWell are based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Meals and foods at participating restaurants that meet the standards are denoted on children’s menu.
More than 60 casual-dining and quick-serve restaurant (QSR) companies are Kids LiveWell members. Of the 50 largest quick-serve companies that have a children’s menu, 80 percent have made some kind of effort to improve the healthfulness of their offerings. Nine out of the top 10 largest QSR companies have done the same. Not only are these efforts a smart position for restaurants in a challenging health environment, but they are also a shrewd business move that meets evolving consumer demands and expectations.
It is widely acknowledged that both the public and private sectors need to make significant investments in the prevention of obesity and chronic disease today in order to lower health care costs in the future. A food isn’t nutritious if people won’t eat it. Getting healthier food into kids’ mouths, not just once in a while but most of the time, is a particularly challenging but pivotally important intervention. Updates to the nutritional requirements for schools and healthier kids’ menus are significant examples of how programmatic changes and private-sector action can promote a common goal. In isolation, neither can solve this nation’s obesity and chronic disease crisis. But together they can synergistically and subtly encourage change in the way parents and children think about a meal so that they aren’t classified anymore as “healthy” but rather as normal.