The Obesity Buster
Watchdog groups, media and academia have long blamed restaurants for making America fat. The critics get even louder when the topic turns to our nation’s children.
In an effort to address that criticism and tackle the problem head on, the National Restaurant Association, in collaboration with Healthy Dining, launched the Kids LiveWell initiative in July of this year. Healthy Dining is a company whose mission is to empower Americans to enjoy dining out as part of a healthier lifestyle and to encourage restaurants to offer dietitian-approved menu choices.
The nationwide program provides parents and children with healthy meal options when they dine in participating restaurants. The website that serves as the focal point of the initiative is HealthyDiningFinder.com, which features participating restaurants, the qualifying menu choices and corresponding nutrient profiles.
Skyrocketing obesity rates in children bode ill for their health and well-being as they grow into adulthood; 17 percent of children aged 2-19 are obese. That figure is close to three times what it was in 1980.
Photo: John Kelly Photography
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased to nearly 20 percent in 2008 from 7 percent in 1980. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased to 18 percent from 5 percent over the same period.
The Kids LiveWell program, which has grown by more than a fourth from the 15,000 original participating restaurant units, requires that all kids’ meals have fewer than 600 calories.
“We started with 19 brands and we are up to 34,” says Joan Rector McGlockton, who is vice president of industry affairs and food policy for the NRA.
Under the guidelines, a meal includes an entrée, side dish and drink.
In addition to the full meal, participating restaurants must offer at least one other item that has 200 calories or less, display or make available nutritional profiles of the healthy options and also promote those options.
McGlockton, who has been with the NRA for about 18 months, began working on Kids LiveWell immediately and spent a good deal of her first year formulating the plan and executing the project.
“When I arrived here, one of the goals was trying to create a mechanism that will help members innovate about providing healthier menu options for children and really put a spotlight on the supplier community coming together with the operator community,” McGlockton says.
When the program was launched, Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive of the NRA, said the program was a direct result of trying to meet the needs of the association’s membership. “Were constantly evolving to meet customers’ needs,”
Anita Jones-Mueller, who is president and founder of the NRA’s partner, Healthy Dining, says that so far the response to the program has exceeded expectations. “At the time of the launch, 19 restaurant companies, representing 15,000 locations, were participating as ‘Inaugural Leaders.’ In just three months the number of participating restaurant companies has grown to almost 19,000 locations.”
Healthy Dining’s dietitians work directly with restaurants on identifying appropriate menu choices that meet the guidelines, such as lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy; providing the nutrient analysis based on the restaurants’ recipes; recommending kid-friendly adult items for those restaurants that don’t have kids’ menu or don’t have qualifying items on their kids’ menus; and recommending modifications to menu items to meet the criteria.
The Kids LiveWell participation fee charged by Healthy Dining is $195 - $1,995, depending on the number of locations. Aside from nutritional analysis the company provides restaurants with a high-quality customer service program, and promotion through NRA and Healthy Dining vehicles and alliances. Pricing includes the 20% NRA/State Restaurant Association member discount; restaurants already participating in Healthy Dining receive an additional discount.
Some of the inaugural full-service restaurant brands that have signed on include Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Chevys Fresh Mex, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, IHOP, Joe’s Crab Shack, and Outback Steakhouse.
“We wanted a program that was inclusive,” says McGlockton. “In many cases the restaurants are contacting us and asking how they can be part of it. It has to be a joint effort.”
Aside from scores of coverage in the trade press, the Kids LiveWell program has received impressive consumer-targeted media coverage including the “Today” show and “Good Morning America” TV programs, and newspaper organizations including USA Today and The Los Angeles Times. In addition, Associated Press stories have gone to hundreds of media outlets across all 50 states.
McGlockton has been thrilled with the media attention, citing nearly 200 million media hits as a great indicator.
“So far consumers have been very supportive of this,” she says. “But we are working to get the word out to as many more people as possible. We really want to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
To that end, McGlockton says there is a full-court press to keep the media momentum going. “We do have a marketing plan behind this which includes Facebook, Twitter, other social media, as well as talking about it at conferences, community health forums, trade association meetings and every other way we can to let consumers and parents know about Kids LiveWell,” she says.
In some instances restaurants that signed on were already offering healthy menu items, but the program helps them get the word out.
“IHOP chose to be an inaugural member of Kids LiveWell to bring additional awareness to our Simple and Fit menu,” says Patrick Lenow, who is the executive director, corporate communications, for IHOP brand owner DineEquity Inc. “Our Simple and Fit menu consists of more than 30 items on the menu, including all of our kids’ meals, that are under 600 calories.”
Lenow says that for the food and beverage innovation team, the challenge was not coming up with menu items: “The difficult part is creating kids’ meal choices that are under 600 calories that taste good and kids enjoy.”
As the program gains traction, Lenow says, it will make a bigger impact on the way kids order.
“A simple example is by only including photos of kids’ meals that reflect a side of fresh fruit. As a rule most kids order based on what they see. We want to be a parent’s partner at the dining table,” Lenow says. Some of the IHOP kids’ menu items include the Rooty Jr., one scrambled egg, one strip of bacon, one pork sausage link and one buttermilk pancake topped with a topping for 460 to 470 calories; Cheese Omelette, made with a splash of buttermilk and wheat pancake batter for extra fluffiness and filled with cheese and served with fresh fruit for 520 calories; and Baby Cakes, which consists of scrambled egg substitute served with one turkey bacon strip and five silver-dollar buttermilk pancakes for 210 calories.
As the NRA’s McGlockton points out, Kids LiveWell is the first program launched by the association that is aimed at the consumer and not the restaurant industry.
“We are learning as we go,” she says. “We want this to be a win-win for the industry and the consumers. The association and the restaurants have a real partnership, and we are working with Healthy Dining to get the word out.”
Mintel, an international research firm, is suggesting that 2012 could be the year that children’s menus will come into greater focus. “First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move initiative and the NRA’s ‘Kids LiveWell’ program are just two forces that promise to improve the nutritional value of kids’ restaurant fare; pending calorie disclosure legislation is another,” Mintel said in its recent Health Track report.
When the first lady addressed NRA members in September of 2010, she pointed out that kids consume more saturated fat, less fiber and calcium and twice as many calories in restaurants as when they eat at home. She suggested that restaurant owners not make drastic changes but rather reformulate food items, “not enough to sacrifice flavor but just enough to make a meaningful difference in the amount of calories and fat.”
Mintel’s Health Track reports: “The good news is that, apparently, whatever you put on kids’ menus seems to do well; the bad news is that not a single vegetable registers on the Top 20 list of menu items for kids. One of the more healthful items, turkey sandwiches, shows some of the slowest growth at 4 percent.”
Not surprisingly the No. 1 menu item on children’s menus is chicken fingers, with grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, burgers, and cheese pizza rounding out the top five. Other popular items include hot dogs, cheeseburgers, cheese quesadillas, pasta, sundaes and spaghetti.
For Chili’s, which also was an inaugural member of the program, consumer research proved useful in shaping the healthier kids’ menu items.
“Our approach to nutrition continues to evolve along with consumer market trends such as low carb no-bun burger and lettuce wraps,” says brand spokeswoman Julie Flowers.
“Ultimately, we shape our business decisions and menu strategies by listening to our guests of all ages, through both quantitative and qualitative research.” She also emphasizes that Chili’s has made it a priority to educate guests about the healthy choices on the menu.
DineEquity’s Lenow agrees that research is a helpful tool when gauging the program’s effectiveness. “We look at the menu mix, feedback from our guests, and we also perform a great deal of consumer research,” he says.
The two Chili’s menu items that fit the Kids LiveWell criteria include Pepper Pals Chicken Sandwich (with or without the bun) and Grilled Chicken. Qualifying sides include Kids Fresh Pineapples, Kids Mandarin Oranges, Kids Broccoli without butter or seasoning, Kids Corn on the Cob without butter or seasoning, Kids House Salad, Kids Kernel Corn and Kids Celery Sticks with Low-Fat Ranch.
Spokeswoman Flowers says Chili’s is committed to healthier options for kids, but parents must also be an important part of the solution.
“Chili’s is committed to providing a variety of choices on all our menus. Kids, just like adults, seek items that satisfy their cravings while at the same time meet their unique dietary needs.
“This program empowers parents to make informed decisions about their children’s meals as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”
Sarah Krieger, who is a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says that childhood obesity can be attributed to many factors but stresses that parents are an important part of the equation.
“A lot of people and groups would like to point fingers. At the end of the day it absolutely boils down to choices made at home.”
Krieger says that the highest obesity rates are found in African-American girls and Mexican-American boys. She says there are a host of reasons for the varying obesity rates in different ethnic groups. “A lot of it is eating habits, and genetics plays a big factor as well.”
Krieger says it is crucial that the entire family be involved. That’s shown in her work with a program at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., called Fit4AllKids, a family weight management program for children 8–12 and Fit4AllTeens, for families with 13–18-year-olds.
“Our goal is to empower the kids to make good choices so they don’t just blame the parents. For the parents we try to empower them to buy the healthiest foods possible.”
Adds Krieger: “The bottom line is that everybody thinks their kid is not overweight, and they wait until diabetes or another health issue becomes a problem. The earlier parents start to address the issue of their children’s weight, the easier it is to control.”
The more restaurant companies that sign off on Kids LiveWell, the more successful the program will be, but as McGlockton is quick to point out, there is another benchmark that is equally important, “We want parents to support the program by going in and buying these meals.”