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Fast Food, Fat Kids? Parents Say They Monitor Kids’ Diets

August 6, 2008

By Denise Richardson, The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.

Aug. 6–Fast-food meals from chain eateries aren’t all that kids eat, several area parents said Tuesday, a day after a national study criticized restaurants for offering foods lacking nutritional value.

Instead, eat-out meals are a treat or an alternative when time is too short for meals at home, the parents said, agreeing that they influence their children’s food choices.

“You have to train them what to eat,” said Tom McCabe, of Worcester, who has three sons. “Everything in moderation.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit public health group, issued a report Monday that examined the nutritional quality of kids’ meals at 13 major restaurant chains.

The center found that of 1,474 possible choices, 93 percent had more than 430 calories — an amount that is one-third of what the National Institute of Medicine recommends that children ages 4 through 8 should consume in a day.

While there are some healthy choices on restaurant menus, “parents have to navigate a minefield of calories, fat and salt to find them,” the report said.

The National Restaurant Association, a group of about 945,000 restaurants and food outlets, said the industry trend is to provide more detailed nutritional information and choice in menu options.

The report, the association said, “fails to acknowledge the essential role of nutrition education, physical activity and parental responsibility in childhood nutrition — good eating habits and healthy living must be established in the home.”

Parents have an enormous and lifelong impact on children and their food choices, said Rachel Wright, an elementary social studies teacher at Milford Central School. Children will eat what their parents give them and the foods they see their parents eating, she said while at Neahwa Park on Tuesday.

“Children are so impressionable,” she said.

The issues of children, eating patterns, health and exercise are familiar, she said, and too often are discussed briefly as news of the day.

“It’s not just about the eating — it’s about the activity,” Wright said. “It’s a message people hear and see a lot, but I’m not sure that they really listen.”

However, time and economic factors sometimes limit choices, she said.

“Overall, I think the parents do the best they can,” said Wright, who is expecting a baby in October. “It’s a complicated issue. … As an expecting parent, how am I going to teach my child to make good choices?”

The report found that 45 percent of children’s meals exceed recommendations for saturated and trans fat, which can raise blood-cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease, and 86 percent of children’s meals are high in sodium.

The report notes that eating out accounts for a third of children’s daily caloric intake, twice the amount consumed away from home 30 years ago.

“Parents want to feed their children healthy meals, but America’s chain restaurants are setting parents up to fail,” CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan said in a statement. “McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and other chains are conditioning kids to expect burgers, fried chicken, pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and soda in various combination at almost every lunch and dinner.”

“People don’t exercise enough restraint,” said Phineas Brown-Collins, 15, of Unadilla, who was with his uncle, McCabe, in Neahwa Park in Oneonta. Moderation is key, he said Tuesday.

McCabe said sometimes his sons will consume foods they need, such as milk to grow or meat to bulk up. But he also encourages them to vary their choices — rice, pasta, potatoes — and little fried food is served at home, he said, so that when they do eat at a “burger place,” it’s OK.

“It’s a balance, it’s a feel,” McCabe said.

Children need to pay attention to their bodies’ nutritional needs, he said, and parents should do it for them until they figure it out.

According to the report, Burger King has a “Big Kids” meal with a double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk at 910 calories. Subway’s kids’ meals came out the best among the chains examined in the report. Only six of 18 “Fresh Fit for Kids” meals — which include a mini-sub, juice box, and a healthful side item such as apple slices or yogurt — exceed the 430-calorie threshold. Subway didn’t offer soft drinks with kids’ meals, which helped lower the calorie count.

The Case children, Elissa, 9, and Terraine, 4, had french fries Tuesday during a break in their trip from home in Greene to Maine on Tuesday, and Terraine had a hamburger and chocolate milk.

Their mother, Emily Case, said they don’t often go to fast-food restaurants, she said.

But when they do stop for a fast meal, which her children consider a treat, the choice is Wendy’s because it sells milk, orange juice and other healthful options, she said. Case said she wishes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were on more menus.

The report recommends restaurants revise menu items to reduce calories, saturated and trans fat, and salt, and add more healthy items such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Another suggestion was to make fruit or vegetables and low-fat milk or water the default sides instead of French fries and soda for children’s meals.

Other restaurant chains included in the report are Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Arby’s and Denny’s, all of which have locations in the city or town of Oneonta.

Rachel Ruiz, of West Oneonta, said children hear about friends going to Taco Bell or Wendy’s, but they learn at home which foods to eat. Her son, Justin Villanueva, 8, chooses chicken and puts it into a salad on the few busy days they go to a fast-food restaurant, she said. And for a snack while at Neahwa Park on Tuesday, she said, he had a fruit drink, an apple and water.

“I like Justin to eat a lot of organic foods,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.

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