Let's get more healthy choices on restaurant kids' menus

  • Article by: TIM REARDON
  • Updated: January 22, 2014 - 6:11 PM

Restaurants, policymakers could help families who seek healthy eating options.

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Kids’ menus are one of my pet peeves. I’d like to make them a target for inspiring better health. Restaurants can play a key role in supporting children and parents by creating menus that reflect what we know is vital in a child’s diet.

 

My 11-year-old daughter, Tess, can attest to the visceral reaction I have to the monochromatic, deep-fried and calorically crammed menu options offered by most restaurants. She’s heard me rant about it so often that she mentions it in anticipation as we approach a restaurant. I breathe a little deeper hearing this. It soothes me to know that my parental messaging about food is being heard.

My frustration is in part a recognition that kids’ menus symbolize just how much work we need to do as a society to align our efforts to achieve better health. It is disempowering for parents when institutions like restaurants are out of sync. There is interplay between my individual choices, the “food policy” we’ve created as a family and the businesses we interact with.

As a parent, I realize the importance of setting an example, imprinting on Tess the importance of a well-balanced diet. We established our family “food policy” on the value we place on “real” food and the connection it has to our health. We can control much of this by what we buy and serve in our home.

Take an 11-year-old grocery shopping, and you will discover the challenges in maintaining a solid food policy for a family. Parents have to be vigilant and expert negotiators to withstand the pressure to give in to a less-than-healthy diet.

We are still by no means a model family. The cupboard reflects many compromises, family traditions and cravings that fall below our perceived ideal standard. Soccer schedules and after-school activities often lead to time-crunching compromises. But we are trying.

Restaurants can be key players in supporting healthier choices. When parents take kids to a restaurant, they may just want the experience to be easy and free of trouble. But how difficult could it be to have well-balanced food options for children that reflect the importance of vegetables, fruits and protein — “real” food?

Providing unhealthful options sends the wrong message — and providing these food items at an inexpensive price simply adds another level of stress for parents and guardians footing the bill. Cheap macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, chicken fingers and french fries are not only coveted options to a child’s taste buds, but they start looking attractive to an economically stressed parent.

Policymakers can help shift the tide in a favorable direction. I’d love to see more incentives for restaurants and families who make healthy choices — and disincentives when unhealthy ones are made. For example, if I go to the gym 12 times a month, I get an incentive from my health insurance company. Couldn’t we build similar incentives into purchasing fruits, vegetables and other commodities we know improve our health outcomes?

Minnesota could adapt what Massachusetts and neighboring New England states have implemented: the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program. The program aims to provide underserved communities with fresh fruits and vegetables by allowing consumers to exchange “prescriptions” generated by health providers for local fresh fruit and vegetables at participating local farmers markets. Restaurants that buy locally grown organic food for their kids’ menus could be provided incentives as well.

While many of us are overwhelmed by the health care policy changes happening nationally in the Affordable Care Act, we know that real change starts with small acts within our reach. Developing a family food policy is one step. Having restaurants co-create healthy options to support my family choices on their kids’ menu is another. Having the Legislature provide incentives will make it more affordable, and in the long run save health care expenditures.

It makes sense to align individual, institutional and public policy to support better and healthier food choices.

 

Tim Reardon is a public affairs consultant and professor of adaptive leadership who lives in Golden Valley.

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