National Restaurant Association’s Revamped Program Aims for Healthier Kids’ Menus

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The National Restaurant Association recently unveiled a major update to its Kids LiveWell initiative that makes it easier for caregivers and children to choose more healthful meals when dining out.

It’s no secret the restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. However, despite all the challenges, there are some upward trends. A mid-year report projects restaurant and foodservice industry sales for 2021 will be $789 billion, up 19.7 percent from 2020. Those indications of a gradually diminishing pandemic mean tabled programs, like Kids LiveWell, which initially launched in 2011, can be revitalized.

The association took the opportunity to revamp the program and bring it back up to modern, nutrition science standards. “You have to put your mission with your vision, develop the program, put it out there, and adjust over time,” said Jeff Clark, the group’s expert exchange director.

Restaurant operators with qualifying meals and sides certified by Kids LiveWell are validated by an approved third-party registered dietitian. Menu items that are certified to meet the Kids LiveWell criteria will help caregivers increase children’s intake of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium. Key updates to the certifying criteria include:

  • Expanding the number of certified menu items: The program now requires that two meals and two sides are certified to meet the Kids LiveWell criteria.
  • Adding a default beverage policy: A default beverage policy for the kid’s menu can only include water, low-fat or nonfat milk, or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
  • Eliminating artificial trans fats: Following the FDA ban on artificial trans fats, industrially produced trans-fat is no longer allowed in Kids LiveWell meals.
  • Removing fat calorie allowance: Along with removing trans-fat allowances, the updated program no longer assesses total fat calories but continues to limit calories from saturated fat.

“Kids menus are not traditionally seen as money makers,” Clark said, “So [we] wanted to flip the script and make it more appealing, with a specific reason to come into a restaurant, so kids will want to go and enjoy it, too.” Restaurants view the kid’s menu as an opportunity to do something good for the community by offering good, healthy eating options for children, he said.

While updating the program, the association spoke to a lot of its members to ask how the group could make it more enticing for the industry to participate, and what the key challenges were. “Listen to your members, what they need, and what they want,” Clark said. His team not only listened to members, but they also spent a lot of time seeking out feedback from public health and consumer advocates to ensure the more stringent version of Kids LiveWell aligns with federal health and nutrition guidelines for Americans.

“It’s really leveraging networks to hear what they’re doing and how they want to assist,” Clark said. “Because these nonprofit groups are looking for a way to make positive change.”

Nearly 13,000 restaurants across the country have Kids LiveWell approved menu items. Restaurants with meals and sides certified in the original program must have any existing meals recertified by January 1, 2022.

“The association is invested in helping the industry find solutions to issues related to health and nutrition,” said the group’s interim president and CEO Marvin Irby in a press release. “Caregivers and children are more educated than ever about the food they choose for their lifestyles. So, we hope that restaurants of all sizes find value in participating in this free program and look forward to expanding its reach.”

(eugenesergeev/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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