STUDY: Review & Content Analysis of State and Local Healthy Kids’ Meal Laws in the U.S.

Young boy eating fruits and veggiesA new study aimed to develop a research instrument to evaluate healthy kids’ meal laws and assess their alignment with expert and industry nutritional standards.

Among kids, fast food consumption is associated with excess weight gain and poorer diet quality due to unhealthy items on kids’ menus. To improve the nutritional quality of fast food kids’ meals, healthy kids’ meal policies have been passed to set nutrition standards for those meals. However, knowledge is limited on how these policies compare to expert and industry nutrition standards. This paper seeks to understand how state and localities use policy to improve child nutrition in the restaurant setting.

The study team identified and compared policy elements of all healthy kids’ meal laws passed between January 2010 and August 2020 in the U.S. and compared those policies against expert and industry nutrition standards. Healthy kids’ meal policies included laws that targeted the nutritional quality of restaurant kids’ meals and addressed kids’ meals using one or more of at least three provisions. The first was a healthy beverage provision which requires restaurants to offer only health beverages as the default option in kids’ meals. The second was a nutritional standards provision, which requires that kids’ meals meet certain nutrient thresholds or food group requirements. The third was a toy restriction provision, which requires restaurants to meet certain nutrient thresholds to offer toys or giveaways with kids’ meals.

A coding instrument was developed to evaluate these healthy kids’ meal policies and identify the policy components of the various laws. A total of 20 healthy kids’ meal laws within nine states were identified.

The results of this review showed that 18 laws contained provisions for healthy default beverages, two laws for toy restrictions, and one law for nutritional standards. No laws fully aligned with expert beverage or nutrition standards and only two laws aligned with industry beverage standards.

These findings have implications for how future healthy kids’ meal policies are crafted and implemented. Healthy kids’ meal policies are intended to create healthier options in restaurants for kids, but no current policies fully align with expert nutrition recommendations.

Future policies could incorporate expert nutrition standards to inform the standards set for kids’ meals and specify the supports needed for implementation to impact the overall healthfulness of kids’ meals served in restaurants.

Perez CL, Moran A, Headrick G, McCarthy J, Cradock AL, Pollack Porter KM. State and Local Healthy Kids’ Meal Laws in the United States: A Review and Content AnalysisJ Acad Nutr Diet. December 2021. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.12.003