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Fast food slims down: The next generation of drive-thru menus

For more than 25 years, millions of people have been picking up their next meal without stepping out of their cars. McDonald’s alone serves 47 million customers a day.

Customers like busy mom of two Kimberly Scott, who says on hectic days when she finds it hard to prepare something she stops by McDonald’s for a quick bite to eat.

“I try not to take them too often – when we do go they enjoy McDonald’s for their play areas and French fries,” says Scott. Scott’s kids are not alone. According to recent estimates, nearly one-third of children eat fast food every day and those that do tend to consume more calories on a daily basis.

“I don’t think anyone eats there for nutrition,” says Scott. “We mostly stop in or drive thru because it’s fast and easy,” she adds.

So is there a way for busy families to get the convenient food they’re looking for and have it be healthy? With everything we’re learning about childhood obesity and nutrition, how important is it for families to have healthy choices at fast food restaurants?

According to recent studies, very important. Dr. David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children’s Hospital in Boston and lead author in a new study found that “nearly one-third of US children ages 4 to 19 eat fast food, which likely packs on about six extra pounds per child per year and increases the risk of obesity.”

Perhaps this is why fast food giants such as McDonald’s are extending their golden arches to include healthy menu options for kids as well as encouraging them to exercise.

McDonald’s web site recommends, “60 minutes of moderate physical activity, including active play, most days of the week,” and uses their play areas as examples of places where kids can achieve this goal.

McDonald’s kid’s meals include the “Happy Meal” and “Mighty Kids Meal.” Recent healthy additions include Apple Dippers with Low Fat Caramel Dip, which provide one serving size of fruit and whose dip contains one gram of fat, 1 percent Low Fat White (100 calories) or Chocolate Milk Jugs (170 calories), and Apple Juice Boxes (90 calories) as alternatives to sugary sodas.

Their menu also includes salads, fruit n’ yogurt parfaits (150 calories) and even reduced fat ice cream. The company also uses white meat for their chicken nuggets – a four piece serving is 170 calories.

Along with expanding its presence from one restaurant in Miami to more than 11,000 locations in 61 countries today, Burger King has expanded its kids menu to offer healthy alternatives including Motts strawberry flavored applesauce and string cheese in place of fries. They also offer lowfat milk instead of soda and display nutritional posters at their locations giving customers data on their 129 menu choices.

The “Old Fashioned Hamburger” that’s known for quality as its recipe at Wendy’s is also looking at updating it’s menu choices with healthy alternatives for kids. You can now replace fries (250 calories) with a 5 oz cup of mandarin oranges that has only 80 calories and 0 grams of fat and replace sodas with white or chocolate milk.

One fast food chain that has not undergone many changes since it first rolled out with their kids meal program in 1987 has also been awarded the “Best Kids Menu in America” for Quick-Service Restaurant 3 out of 4 years.

Jodie Worrell, RD, LD and nutritional consultant for Chick-Fil-A says, “We care about the physical and character development of each child we touch with our kid’s meals. Our kid’s meals are more than just about food – they combine a unique level of value and nutrition.”

Moms like Megan Merchant agree and say that’s why she takes her two young sons there.

“We like their food, they have fresh fruit instead of fries – which my sons actually prefer – and their kid’s meal toys are great,” she says.

Chick-Fil-A’s fruit cup is a new addition to their menu – first introduced in May 2004. It provides 35 percent of the recommend daily value of vitamin C and is naturally fat free. Their kids’ meals consist of whole breast chicken nuggets or strips that are hand breaded and portion controlled for children.

“All of our chicken comes in raw and we hand bread our strips, nuggets and filets. We cook in 100 percent peanut oil which means there are no hydrogenated oils in the nuggets or strips” adds Worrell.

The restaurant has always offered milk or orange juice as an alternative to soda at the same cost. In addition the company focuses on educational tools with their kid’s meals including history books, language tapes and most recently a series on “Healthy Living with 4 – Growing and Going” books which focus on nutrition, exercise and safety.

If your favorite chain isn’t offering healthy kids menu choices now, chances are they will be in the future. Many are currently looking at their menus and making changes that will have a positive impact on children’s nutrition.

This industry is not only paying attention to whose behind the wheel at the drive-thru but the next generation of drivers in the back seat, hoping that by making healthy changes today, they’ll have a future generation of drive thru lovers tomorrow.

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