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Food marketing in restaurants

Eating out at restaurants is no longer a rare treat saved for a special occasion. American adults and children consume, on average, one-third of their calories from eating out.1 And children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a typical meal at home.2 The overwhelming majority of children’s meals are unhealthy.3 Eight-six percent of children’s meals at the nation’s largest chain restaurants are high in calories; many also are high in sodium (66%) and saturated fat (55%).4 Many restaurants provide few healthy options for children and make unhealthy options the default accompaniments with meals (i.e., the meals automatically come with fries and a soft drink).

Fast-food and other restaurants use food marketing to shape children’s food preferences and choices, to shape what kids think of as food. And unfortunately, restaurants are defining the social norm for children’s food as pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, and sugary drinks.

There has been some progress improving children’s meals at restaurants, but not nearly enough. The National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program launched in 2011 to encourage fast-food and other restaurants to provide healthier restaurant children’s meals. Today, there are 135 restaurant brands and more than 40,000 restaurant locations in the program. Many restaurants are reformulating menu options, replacing french fries with fruits and vegetables and offering low-fat milk or water instead of soda. But progress has been slow. Restaurants are only required to offer one healthy meal and one additional side item to qualify for the program. Much more needs to be done.

Addressing food marketing in restaurants is key to addressing food marketing to kids overall — fast-food is one of the top food categories marketed to children.5 Forty percent of all television food advertising to young kids is for fast food and other restaurant food. Many restaurants offer menu items designed for and marketed to children. Restaurant companies target children and adolescents with $714 million worth of marketing each year; toy giveaways make up almost half ($340 million) of those expenditures.6

Parents play a central role in determining what their children eat. However, restaurants should support — not undermine — parents’ efforts to feed their children healthfully. Parents, health professionals, and others can work with their state, city, or county on policies to:

  • Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals.
  • Remove sugar sweetened beverages from kids’ meals.
  • Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals that are sold with toys.

Children are not the only ones faced with unhealthy options at restaurants-adults also are given more unhealthy then healthy options while dining out. Many restaurant meals lack nutrition information to allow individuals to identify the healthiest choice for themselves or their children. It is difficult to know how many calories or how much salt or fat food contains if nutrition information is not provided. In addition to helping customers make informed choices, menu labeling provides an incentive for restaurants to improve the nutritional quality of their offerings.

Starting in December 2015, federal law will require that restaurants with 20 or more outlets list calories on menus and menu boards. While menu labeling at chain restaurants is a good start, cities and states can do more to expand access to nutrition information at more restaurants. A good next step is to provide menu labeling on state or local property, such as in cafeterias in government office buildings, publicly funded hospitals, state universities, road-side rest stops, and state park concessions. States and localities can also go further by requiring restaurants with fewer than 20 outlets to list nutrition information for foods and beverages on menus and menu boards.

Fact sheets, model policies and reports on food marketing in restaurants

General/background

Serve Kids Better: Restaurant children’s meals
Voices for Healthy Kids and Center for Science in the Public Interest

Fact sheet: Healthy restaurant children’s meals improve children’s diets and health
Voices for Healthy Kids and Center for Science in the Public Interest

Fact sheet: The national movement to improve restaurant children’s meals
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Serve Kids Better: Tips for effective kids’ restaurant meals messaging
Voices for Healthy Kids

Fact sheet: Unhealthy restaurant children’s meals
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Issue brief: Food marketing: Using toys to market children’s meals
Healthy Eating Research

Report: Kids’ meals: Obesity on the menu
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Are fast-food restaurants keeping their promises to offer healthier kids’ meals?
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Fast food FACTS
UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Fact sheet: Toy giveaways with restaurant children’s meals
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Fact sheet: Take obesity off the menu: Healthier default beverages with restaurant children’s menus (en español)
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Quita la obesidad del menú: Bebidas más saludables en restaurantes con menús para niños (also available in English)
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Commentary: Families need more help to make healthy choices
Childhood Obesity. Author Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Policy options for states and localities

Marketing matters: A white paper on strategies to reduce unhealthy food and beverage marketing to young children
ChangeLab Solutions

Model ordinance: Healthy children’s meals
National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Model ordinance: Toy giveaways at restaurants
National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Healthy Defaults

Soda on the menu: Improvements seen but more change needed for beverages on restaurant children’s menus
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Infographic: Six down, many to go: Progress toward healthier beverages for children (en Español)
Center for Science in the Public Interest and Voices for Healthy Kids Action Center
View print version (English / Español)

Serving kids better: Healthy recipes for restaurant children’s meals
American Heart Association, Voices for Healthy Kids Action Center, and Center for Science in the Public Interest

Fact sheet: The fault with defaults
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Literature review: Effect of defaults on consumer choice
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Fact sheets, model policies and reports on menu labeling

Menu labeling website
Center for Science in the Public Interest


References

1. Lin B. and Morrison R.M. (2012). Food and Nutrient Intake Data: Taking a Look at the Nutritional Quality of Foods Eaten at Home and Away From Home. Amber Waves. 10(2):1-2.

2. Powell L.M. and Nguyen B.T. (2012). Fast-food and Full-Service Restaurant Consumption among Children and Adolescents: Effect on Energy, Beverage, and Nutrient Intake. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. November 5.

3. Batada A, Flewelling L, Goode A, and Wootan MG. Kids’ Meals II: Obesity on the Menu. Washington, D.C.: CSPI, 2013.

4. Batada A, Flewelling L, Goode A, and Wootan MG. Kids’ Meals II: Obesity on the Menu. Washington, D.C.: CSPI, 2013.

5. Federal Trade Commission [FTC] (2012). A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents. Follow Up Report. http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/12/121221foodmarketingreport.pdf.

6. Federal Trade Commission [FTC] (2012). A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents. Follow Up Report. http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/12/121221foodmarketingreport.pdf.