Columbia restaurants plan to offer healthier children's menu choices

Saturday, July 23, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 23, 2011
Byler Denker, 3, stretches to eat a grape from his mother's hand. Sabrina Denker was dining with her son at Denny's along with Byler's grandfather, Jeff Wheeler, and sister, Ember Denker. Denny's will be adding two children's meals that meet the Kids LiveWell program's nutritional criteria.

COLUMBIA — Super-sizing is out. The next big drive-thru question could be: "Would you like apple fries with that?"

Burger King has begun slicing apples to look like french fries, and six other Columbia restaurants and chains are making similar efforts to offer healthier foods to children. IHOP is including a side of fresh fruit with some children's meals. Denny's is introducing children to egg whites and turkey bacon, and vegetables accompany the main course on children's menus at Chevy's, Chili's, Cracker Barrel and Outback Steakhouse.

KIds LiveWell Program Meal Criteria

Full children's meals must contain no more than:

  • 600 calories
  • 35 percent of calories from total fat
  • 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
  • 35 percent of calories from total sugars (added and naturally occurring)
  • 770 milligrams of sodium
  • 0.5 grams of trans fat (artificial trans fat only)

Alternate side items on children's menus must contain no more than:

  • 200 calories
  • 35 percent of calories from total fat
  • 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
  • 0.5 grams artificial trans fat
  • 35 percent of calories from total sugars (added and naturally occurring)
  • 250 milligrams of sodium
  • 1 food group (see below)
  • Entrees must include two sources, and sides must include one of the following: fruit, vegetable, whole grains, lean protein or lower-fat dairy.

*Information from

Tips for incorporating healthier foods into children's diets:

  • Try not to offer food as a reward or as a means of making your child feel better.
  • Start with having more meals at home.

  • Let your children help pick out a fruit and a vegetable they would like to try when you go grocery shopping.

  • Make a variety of things available on the table at meal time.

  •  Teach children about the food they are eating.

  • Let children help with preparing dinner.

  • Don't be a short-order cook for picky eaters.

  • Teach children about portion control. Children learn by example, so choose the smallest size or split the item with another person.

Tips suggested by Jill Granneman, outpatient dietitian at MU Health Care

  •  Be a good role model. If you want your child to eat a vegetable, then try eating a vegetable in front of you child.

  • Compromise if you need to make changes slowly.  If your child wants an unhealthy item, order a healthy side, too.

  • Avoid serving treats and desserts daily. 

Tips suggested by Kayla Otteson, clinical dietitian with the pediatric endocrinology team at MU Health Care.

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The menu additions aim to lower fat, sodium and sugar by limiting children's meals to 600 calories and including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein. Nationally, 18 restaurant chains will add healthier choices as part of the Kids LiveWell program, launched by Healthy Dining and the National Restaurant Association on July 13.

The restaurants are required to promote their healthier options, and they will implement the changes on their own timelines. In turn, they will get placement on the program website and promotion through the Kids LiveWell program. The restaurants can keep old items on their menus.

The national campaign coincides with developments across the nation to combat the rise of childhood obesity, which is now estimated to be at 17 percent for children 2 to 19 years old. Earlier this month, for example, big food makers agreed to change the way they advertise unhealthy foods to children after facing pressure from consumers and national organizations. Meanwhile:

Debates over health have increased consumer knowledge about nutrition, and these battles have pressured food stakeholders to make changes to their products. Whether changes under the Kids LiveWell program will make it easier for parents to get their kids to eat healthier foods remains a question.

Parents respond

In restaurants across Columbia last week, parents said they thought a wider selection of healthy foods on menus would be useful, but some questioned whether children would bite. Melanie Beussink, who ate pizza with her children, Brice, 6, and Rachel, 7, at CiCi's Pizza Buffet on Monday, said she always tries to choose a restaurant her kids can agree on.

"Every child is so different," she said. “It’s nice to have more options so that a parent has flexibility in choosing a place to eat."

Brice, who was allowed to choose one treat, snarfed his brownie in a matter of seconds.

"Where did your brownie go?" Beussink asked teasingly. She said she and her children usually eat at home, but they eat out for fun or when they're in a hurry.

Eun Soo Suh and Seon Im Park, parents of 5- and 7-year-old boys, also applauded the changes that will put more fruits and vegetables on children's menus. They noted that Americans consume more meat than Koreans and said it's hard to find fresh, local produce and ingredients in Columbia.

Kristina Kottenbrook, who likes to eat out with her 9-year-old niece, said she doesn't believe simply making healthy foods available will help every child to eat well. Children can still "eat the unhealthy things and say they're full," she said.

Paul Simmons, who ate lunch with his granddaughter, Coriana, 8, at McDonald's on Monday, said the menu changes could be helpful but difficult for parents to enforce.

"Parents are on the move — they work a lot, and they have a hard time planning meals for their kids," he said. "I’m not sure how well it’s going to go over."

More than calories, though, nutritional content concerned some Columbians.

Michael Sherchick, who has tried various Columbia restaurants since his recent move from Ohio, was disappointed to see corn offered as a side item on one children's  menu.

"It’s really a starch, so it’s not as nutritious as a green vegetable," he said. "There’s too much focus on calories and not enough on vitamins and minerals. More nutritious food will automatically have less calories, so that would be a better guideline."

The USDA classifies corn as a starchy vegetable.

Parents matter

Jill Granneman, an outpatient dietitian at MU Health Care, weighed in on some of the changes.

Giving children unhealthy foods regularly causes them to develop a taste for those types of foods, and children often mimic parents' habits, she said.

"If Dad eats a doughnut for breakfast everyday, it makes sense that his child will likely want to eat what he is eating," she said.

Granneman advised teaching children to listen to their bodies and eat to satisfy hunger instead of emotional needs. Doing this will encourage long-lasting healthy eating habits, she said.

American food habits also impact childhood obesity, she said.

"In America, we have a tendency to use food for comfort," she said. "We celebrate with food. We eat when we're happy, sad, anxious or bored, and we teach our children to do the same."

Although some Columbians appreciate local efforts to provide healthier menu options under the Kids LiveWell program, others expressed conflicting views on policy changes or government involvement.

“I do think restaurants should have healthy options available, but they shouldn’t be forced to," said Mark Ashcraft, a manager at Cracker Barrel.

He said the law requiring restaurants to post calorie information might cause a stir; people would be shocked to learn how many calories are in their favorite foods. (A study released this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that calorie counts on restaurant menus usually underestimate the total.) But Ashcraft said he's glad to offer specially labeled foods for the Kids LiveWell program.

"Highlighting the new items will make it easier for families to make healthy choices," he said.

Joe Swartz, who likes to cook for and eat out with his 8- and 9-year old nephews, said government involvement gives people an educated idea of what they’re eating.

"I know people who are diabetic or health-conscious who need to know what’s in their food," he said.

Managers of some of the participating restaurants were not aware last week of the campaign. When they update their menus, they will use a Kids LiveWell icon to identify and promote the new children's items, according to the National Restaurant Association.

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Jeremy Calton July 23, 2011 | 2:32 a.m.

"...Chevy's, Chili's, Cracker Barrel and Outback Steakhouse."

Does anybody else remember when Columbia didn't have any of these restaurant menus to worry about in the first place?

(Report Comment)
david smith July 23, 2011 | 7:28 a.m.

Michelle Obama would be so happy! Of course the parents could choose not to take their kids to burger king or cici's pizza buffet, but that would rely too much on personal responsibility and the obamas don't like that.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks July 23, 2011 | 7:55 a.m.

The real question is "Why are these kids taken to restaurants in the first place. I could not imagine a kid less then 8-10 eating that food or having soda.

The Libertarian in me says let the people and business do what they want.
The Socialist in me says fine the parents for every pound they or their child is over weight.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 23, 2011 | 10:09 a.m.

A healthier restaurant menu is good, but where do children eat most of their meals? If their home represents an unhealthy situation then not much progress is going to be made.

I direct your attention to the most recent column by Rose Nolen. You can easily access it by clicking "Opinion" at the top of the home page of the Missourian.

Don't care much for Rose's columns? Try reading this particular one. Rose tells us about a project where families grew vegetables. Swell, but when the vegetables were ready the adults DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO PREPARE THE VEGETABLES FOR EATING, so more project expense was required to teach the adults how to do that.

What the hell do those people normally eat? Never mind, I don't think I want to know.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett July 23, 2011 | 10:06 p.m.

@"Byler Denker, 3, stretches to eat a grape from his mother's hand."

Moms have been doing this from forever, for their toddlers/babies. We were invited out to eat at a great restaurant in Columbia with the parents of a God child, and he was not quite two. His Mom packed his grapes, and some healthy munchies along and brought them out when we began to be served. She also looked over the menu and ordered a few special things that were healthy, and had them placed on his special plate. We adults were also able to find some rather healthy food on the menu to order and enjoy. Even though there was a blizzard, the place in which we dined was crowded with those who evidently appreciated the place. As this was customary to both the parents and the other patrons, it did not seem necessary to have an outside program tell them how to manage for their children, or the business to provide a great place for families and friends to eat together - and eat healthy foods. Some folks just choose to not patronize unhealthy eateries. Habit from long ago.

: )

(Report Comment)
Sherry Morris July 24, 2011 | 2:14 p.m.

Until my kids were 16, they couldn't drive to any restaurants without me.
Apparently, parents are too terrified of their children and/or too immature to tell their children, "No, you can't eat that brownie until you finish your salad."
It's not the government's place to regulate what our children eat. It's the parents' place. If parents are too ignorant to buy a cookbook or look for recipes (for free) on the internet about how to cook vegetables, etc., they shouldn't be having children in the first place.
The government needs to butt out.
One last thought: "food stamps" should be for staples only: fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, raw meats, eggs, milk, flour, pre-packaged anything. That should pretty much fix most of the obesity problem and save the tax-payers a bundle as well.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett July 24, 2011 | 2:49 p.m.

Suggestions made in past that would indicate that children nutrition needs were/are met with food stamps: parents keep a daily journal of food fed children with receipts from the food stamps purchases stapled to each time frame they were implemented into the diet of the children. The case worker would require this for filing, showing that the nutritional needs of the children are met - the whole idea behind granting food stamps.

Long before food stamps, there loomed problems of parents using the money on other things than food and clothing for the children. Case in point: children went ragged. slept three and four to a bed, and were nutritionally deprived and weak, because they ate only a small plate of beans each night with a small slice of cornbread and only had one biscuit and one egg every morning. Every month, every day, this is the life of the children who were supposed to be getting the benefit of the social services pay roll accounting. In the meantime, the parents had tobacco, a drink or two at the bar, and ate out when they went to town while the kids were in school. They also paid a monthly death benefit insurance to the funeral home on every child, and this existed until the children were 18 and told to leave home, as the parents could no longer draw a check on them. The children needed the money in food and clothing, but it was placed elsewhere in a way that it could meet their daily needs of food and clothing.

Clinton straightened up a whole lot, but the suggestion yet exists that the food stamps should be accounted for in record to make certain that the nutrition needs of the children is properly met as to their best interest, not to the whim of the parent as to what the stamps will go for.

If the government is requested in there by the parents in giving them money for food, then the parents should be held accountable as to how that food stamp allotment is being spent and with receipts to back them up all the way - on file.

But the government should not tell the businesses what to serve their customers, as the customers themselves choose where they will eat.

If a child is obese from poor nutrition habits, then the parent is accountable, not the person who owns the business.

Marketing. Free enterprise.

: )

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett July 24, 2011 | 2:51 p.m.

Correction: The children needed the money in food and clothing, but it was placed elsewhere in a way that it could not meet their daily needs of food and clothing.

(Report Comment)

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