Hold the fries; pass the apples.
As part of a campaign called Kids Live Well, 19 fast-food chains are adding healthier options to their typical burger-and-shake fare. Each participant has vowed to offer at least one low-calorie kids' meal with no fewer than two servings of veggies, whole grains and other good stuff. Burger King will stop automatically putting fries and soda in their kiddie packs in the hope that parents will opt for apple slices and milk instead. IHOP brags that its kids' menu already includes a dish of tilapia with a side of broccoli. (Not participating: McDonald's. They're doing a little Superior Dance and scoffing, "Nyah. We've been doing the apple thing for years.")
Sounds good at first glance. After all, moms are hard-wired to nourish, and feeding children is a Momsperiment we all conduct: what to serve, when, how much. It's also jam-packed with angst. From the breast-vs-bottle debate onward, we worry about every meal we serve - even the healthy ones. (Are those veggies sprayed with pesticides? Does the sugar in this cereal cancel out the whole grains?) Most of all, we secretly feel judged. If our grocery cart contains more mac 'n' cheese boxes and ice cream cartons than brown rice and peaches, we can almost hear the bad-mom thoughts of fellow shoppers. So this initiative may help ease some of the guilt we feel over hitting yet another chain restaurant because we're too busy to make a pot of soup from scratch.
But let's not get too excited just yet. Most of the eateries have just two or three "healthy" options, most along the lines of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Friendly's has only one low-cal entree; the rest of its Live Well list consists of ho-hum side dishes like corn niblets and applesauce.
Then there's the mixed-message problem. If you're going to order grilled salmon and baked potatoes for the youngsters, you'd better not chow down on the triple cheeseburger unless you're prepared for wails of "That's not fair!"
Finally, there's the big question of what we honestly want from our family-dining experience. Yes, we want the service quick, the food cheap and tasty and the atmosphere tantrum-tolerant. But do we want it healthy? Let's face it: You don't go to IHOP because you're craving tilapia and broccoli, and adding carrot and celery sticks to a supper of fried chicken fingers and a Snickers sundae doesn't make it nutritionally sound.
So if we're serious about feeding our families well when we're traveling, tired or on a tight schedule, then we shouldn't settle for this half-hearted effort. Let's demand more healthy kids' and adult entrees on fast-food menus, imaginative side dishes that might actually get children to enjoy their veggies, and perhaps bonuses like organic produce and meat from humane farms. Then let's show our appreciation by choosing these eateries over ones that try to appease us with a few steamed green beans, even if it costs more.
But if deep down, we don't want to give up the grease, salt and sugar when we go out - or ban it totally for our children - then let's indulge without guilt (as long as it is, indeed, an indulgence and not a regular habit) and stop trying to make fast food anything more than it is.
When it comes to kids' meals, let's not kid ourselves.