Researchers at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles analyzed menus at 20 popular fast food chains between 2004 and 2015. During that time, the number of meal packages that offered at least one fruit and non-fried vegetable side dish (such as apple slices or carrots) rose from less than a quarter to about 80 percent.
Healthier drink options increased too, the study found. About 80 percent of meal packages in 2015 offered plain milk, water, or 100 percent fruit juice in place of soda or flavored milk, compared to about half that in 2004.
But while healthier food options have increased, many parents aren't taking advantage of them, according to a report by the University of Connecticut, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Researchers there analyzed surveys of nearly 2,500 parents who had purchased lunch or dinner for their kids at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, or Subway during the prior week. The surveys were conducted in 2010, 2013, and 2016.
Only about half of parents purchased kids' meals with healthier sides and drinks, the report found. This apparent lack of enthusiasm for the healthier choices continued even as the number of healthy meal options rose during the study period, researchers found.
Why aren't more parents choosing the healthy options?
Part of the problem may be that restaurants aren't making it easy to select healthier meals. The American Journal of Public Health study found that less than a third of fast food chains offered healthy drinks and sides as the default option with kids' meals in 2015. In other words, if you want the healthy version, you have to ask for it.
The researchers recommend that restaurants automatically provide healthier sides and drinks with kids' meals, rather than leaving that choice up to parents.
As convenient as it is for parents, fast food still tends to be less healthy than meals cooked at home. Children who eat fast food consume about 150 extra calories a day when they eat out, lead study author Megan Mueller told Reuters. Choosing healthier sides and drinks can help counteract that, she said.
If you're struggling to get your child to eat better, check out these ideas for encouraging preschoolers to eat more healthy food and for finding alternatives to fast food.
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