Food marketing in restaurants

Eating out at restaurants is no longer a rare treat saved for a special occasion. More than one half of food expenditures in the United States are spent outside of the home1 and children get an average of 25 percent of their calories from restaurant foods and beverages.2 Children eat almost twice as many calories when they eat a meal at a restaurant compared to a typical meal at home. The overwhelming majority of children’s meals are unhealthy.3 Eighty-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%).3 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.

Addressing food marketing in restaurants is key to addressing food marketing to kids overall. Restaurant foods are the largest category of food marketed to children1,4 and play a critical role in children’s diets.

General resources

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:

1. Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals.
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 over 100 restaurant brands and more than 42,000 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. More needs to be done.

2. Change default beverages to healthy options for children’s meals.
Defaults are the option people automatically receive if they do not choose something else. Evidence from a wide range of fields (including retirement plans, organ donation, health care, and food/nutrition) shows that people tend to stick with defaults and that setting beneficial defaults has high rates of acceptability.5 Restaurants can commit to making the healthy option the default option. Additionally, states and localities can pass policies that require the healthy option be the default option.

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3. Set nutrition standards for restaurant kids’ meals that are sold with toys.

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Children are not the only ones faced with unhealthy options at restaurants — adults also are given more unhealthy than 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 May 2018, 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.

More resources

Menu labeling website
Center for Science in the Public Interest



1. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “U.S. Food-away-from-home Sales Topped Food-at-home Sales in 2014.” April 12, 2016. Accessed at <>.

2. Lin B, Morrison RM. “Food and Nutrient Intake Data: Taking a Look at the Nutritional Quality of Foods Eaten at Home and Away From Home.” Amber Waves 2012, vol 10(2), pp. 1-2. Accessed at <>.

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

4. Frazier III WC, Harris JL. Trends in Television Food Advertising to Young People: 2015 Update. Hartford, CT: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, July 2016. Available at <>.

5. Wootan M. “Children’s Meals in Restaurants: Families Need More Help to Make Healthy Choices.” Childhood Obesity. February 2012, vol. 8(1), pp. 31-33.