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More Healthful Kids Meals? Panera CEO Dishes Out A Challenge

Panera's CEO has challenged other fast-food CEOs to eat their kids' menus for a week. He's trying to start a conversation about the nutrition in these meals.
Charles Krupa
Panera's CEO has challenged other fast-food CEOs to eat their kids' menus for a week. He's trying to start a conversation about the nutrition in these meals.

Chicken nuggets. French fries. Pizza. Repeat.

This repertoire of kids menu items may seem familiar to many families, but one fast-casual chain aims to put a lot more options in front of its young customers.

Beginning this month, there's a kid-sized version of almost everything on Panera's regular menu. The portion shrinks, as does the price. "Kids now have the choice of 250 different combinations," Panera CEO Ron Shaich told NPR.

So, how about a Greek salad with greens and quinoa? Squash soup or a whole-grain flatbread with turkey and cranberries? Maybe these could expand kids' palates.

Shaich announced these changes in a video in which he also challenged the CEOs of fast-food chains to re-examine their kids meal options, which he says can be "nutritional nightmares." He says kids meals at many chains almost always come with french fries, promotional toys and often sugary drinks, too.

"I challenge the CEOs of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King to eat off of their kids menu for a week, or to re-evaluate what they're serving our children in their restaurants," Shaich says in the video.

Now, while Panera has been ahead of the curve in focusing on good nutrition, not every Panera entree is a paragon of healthful eating. The mac and cheese on Panera's kids menu has 470 calories, a whopping 1,230 milligrams of sodium, and only 1 gram of fiber. This dish is more calorie dense and sodium-laden than a four-piece chicken nugget option offered by competitors.

When it comes to his challenge, Shaich says he has not heard back from any of his rival CEOs.

McDonald's responded to our request asking about the challenge. "We're proud of how we're continuing to raise the bar on the food we serve at McDonald's," Becca Hary, a McDonald's spokesperson, told us in an email.

Hary points to many changes to the Happy Meal in recent years, including downsizing the portion size of french fries. In addition, the chain has made a commitment to taking sugary fountain drinks such as Coke off the kids menu; instead, it's promoting milk and juices. Its most recent offering is a lower-sugar organic juice.

"Our recent announcement that we're adding Honest Kids Juice Drink to our Happy Meals joins other positive changes we have made, such as removing artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, which also don't have artificial colors or flavors," Hary concluded.

She says since 2012, McDonald's has served more than 2 billion servings of fruit and low-fat dairy products like Go-Gurt and now automatically offers apple slices in Happy Meals.

Other chains have revamped their kids menus, too. Back in 2014, Subway pledged to pile on vegetables and promote healthier choices to young customers.

But, overall, a disconnect remains between the meals that many chains offer kids and the kinds of meals we're advised to eat.

The Dietary Guidelines recommendthat we fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables and that we ramp up consumption of fiber-rich whole grains. At the same time, we're advised to cut back on salt and refined carbohydrates.

And despite recent changes to kids menus, they still largely reflect the eating habits of many Americans who consume too much sugar, salt and calorie-dense foods.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.