While efforts in San Francisco have gone underway to ban toys in most of McDonald’s Happy Meals, fast food marketing targeting kids around the rest of the country continues to be on the rise. According to a recently released study by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, children as young as two-years-old are viewing fast food ads across a variety of medias more than ever before.
Since 2003, the average preschooler is seeing 21% more fast food-related ads, according to the report.
Yale’s Rudd Center looked at the marketing efforts and nutrition info. from 12 of the largest fast food companies in the country. Of the 3,000 examined fast food meals targeted towards kids, a measly 12 met the nutritional guidelines for preschool-aged kids. Furthermore, of these 12 meals was Burger King’s macaroni and cheese meal with apple slices and fat-free milk. Just like the relatively poor nutritional standards that San Francisco has set for McDonald’s Happy Meals, I don’t care how low-cal that mac & cheese meal is (285 calories), in any other context than its comparison to other fast food meals, I certainly wouldn’t consider that to be a “healthy” meal combination.
Additionally, the study revealed that a majority of the side dishes and drink options for children’s meals are unhealthy. And it’s the chips, french fries, and sodas that end up on kids trays or in their grease-absorbing paper bags, not the sliced apples or baby carrots. The other healthier options are rarely just given out unless the parent specifically asks for these items. Which begs the question, why don’t we mandate that these items become the default side dishes and require parents to specially request the french fries if they want to allow their kids to consume junk?
According to the report, fast food meals purchased by those 13-17 years old typically contain between 800 and 1,100 calories per one meal. Nearly a third of those calories come from sugar and fat, and virtually all of the meals are heavy-laden with salt. Sip of soda please to counteract that salty dilemma?
The report also revealed that the fast food industry spent over $4.2 billion on marketing and advertising during last year alone. Kids seen an average of 3-5 fast food ads per day, depending on the age group. Sadly, research shows that this excessive marketing is working. According to the report, 40% of children ages 2-11 ask their parents to go to McDonald’s at least once a week, and 15% of preschoolers ask to go every day. Even worse, 84% of parents reported taking their child ages 2-11 to a fast food restaurant at least once in the past week.
The dreary fast food industry is ominous, especially to health advocates like me. While healthy choices are being offered in many of the chain restaurants, they still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, it’s going to be the dedicated parent that will ultimately need to stand in and steer their child away from fast food. Soon (and already in many cities), calorie counts will be listed on chain restaurants across the country, just one factor that can help parents in making healthier choices. But the best option: Steer clear of fast food restaurants all together, even if it means hearing a mouthful of angry kid complaints. They’re really not worth the few minutes you’d save from preparing a superior option, and eventually kids will learn to stop asking… At least, that’s how we dealt with the fast food dilemma in my household.