One-third of American children eat fast food once a day, according to a recent study. And that one meal can easily account for more than half the calories a child should consume daily.
Whether it's once a day or once a week, most parents know fast food isn't a really healthful option, but sometimes it's the only option.
But now, after mounting medical evidence that fast food is negatively shaping a generation, the fast food chains are responding.
In recent months McDonald's started offering apple slices instead of fries with its Happy Meals. Wendy's now touts Mandarin oranges with its kids' meals. At Chick-fil-A you can get your kids a fruit cup instead of fries if you pay 35 cents extra for the kids' meal. And all three are promoting low-fat milk as a great way to wash it all down instead of those sugary sodas.
So, parents and doctors complained. Fast food came up with a few healthier options. They got some good publicity. Everybody feels better about themselves. But guess what? Most kids are still eating plenty of fries.
"We still get fries. We eat fruit at home so we get fries here because we don't get fries at home," said Melinda Steffny, mother of 9-year-old Kathy and 5-year-old Max, as they left the Chick-fil-A at 4241 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg.
"I let them get french fries if that's what they want. We don't eat fast food all the time," said Tracy Divito, who brought her two children and their cousins to Chick-fil-A recently. Her son Jeffrey, however, does get the fruit instead of the fries. And she added they all will drink milk instead of soda.
"I walked in here saying I was going to get a salad, and I ended up getting the No. 9, the Chicken Deluxe," Christina Rue, 18, said during a recent lunch with friends at McDonald's on Tyrone Boulevard.
"I'll eat healthy at home," said her friend, Joni Schmidt. "If I'm at a fast food restaurant, I'm going to eat fast food."
Okay. So some very unscientific research on my part confirmed my hunch. Most kids aren't asking for, or even accepting, fruit instead of fries. But the choices are making some inroads toward better eating habits. Sales figures imply that most kids aren't trading in their fries for fruit, but a lot are adding fruit to their fries, burger and chicken.
"The apple dippers are doing pretty well. It seems to be more of an a la carte add-on item," said Heather Oldani, McDonald's spokeswoman. Instead of replacing fries, you can pay $1.34 to add the apples and caramel dipping sauce to a kids meal.
Four-year-old Tayler Redderson was happily dipping her apples recently at the Tyrone Boulevard McDonald's. Her mother, Christine Redderson, had managed to offer just the apple slices for a while, but then Tayler dined out with a friend and learned they actually come with the caramel sauce. But even with the sugar factor, Redderson is glad her daughter is eating the apples.
"If she dips them in the sauce, then she knows she doesn't get the cookies for dessert," she said.
McDonald's expects to go through 35-million pounds of apples a year and 208-million milk jugs a year. McDonald's has always sold milk, but now it offers low-fat white and chocolate milk in plastic jugs, which has a certain cache that doesn't come with a paper carton.
"The milk is doing very, very well, especially chocolate milk. Kids are more likely to drink the milk when it's in a fun container," Oldani said. Wendy's also offers both in plastic jugs.
Since the Fourth Street Chick-fil-A started offering the large and small fruit cups a few months ago,sales have gone well, but there has been no decrease in sales of fries. That's why owner David Neely believes his customers are also opting to just add on the healthful side.
"For those moms and dads who want to try the fruit, it has been a very popular option, but typically people who normally get fries have not made the switch," he said. "I'm a big fruit eater so I thought it would detract from fry sales. When we sampled (the fruit) in our dining room, our customers said it was great, but they were still getting the fries."
He says parents may feel their kids are eating healthier at Chick-fil-A even if they do get the chicken and fries because both are cooked in peanut oil, and the chicken nuggets are made from skinless, white meat.
So for the parents who do want to push the fruit with or instead of the fries, why do we have to pay 35 cents more? It costs a lot more to get fresh fruit each day than cook up another batch of waffle cut fries, Neely explained.
A la carte, the small fruit cup costs $1.45 and the big cup, which can be spilt among three children to slightly ease a mother's fast food guilt complex, costs $2.85.
Please e-mail Rookie Mom if you are planning a pumpkin patch, fall festival or Halloween activities for children. You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at snowsmithverizon.net.