New York City Council member Benjamin Kallos recently proposed a bill that would require popular fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s to add a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grains into their kid-centric menu offerings.

Now, this seems like a reasonable idea on the surface. After all, it’s for the good of the children, right? And, very few of us would argue about whether or not there’s a problem with the standard diets and levels of health in our youth.

But dig just below the surface of the bureaucracy and you’ll see how quickly this law can become ineffective.

What do the meals look like now?
Researchers in California reviewed meals aimed at kids from popular chains and found they averaged 600 calories with 36% of those calories coming from fat (24 grams).

In the New York proposals, kid-focused meals would have to have 500 calories or less, contain 35% of calories from fat (about 20 grams), 10% of calories from saturated fat; 10% from added sugar, and 600 mg of salt.

The savings? 54 calories.

In addition, the amount of sodium and calories from fat in each meal would drop 10%.

According to the author of the study, Brian Elbel, “While 54 calories at a given meal is a small reduction, small changes that affect a wide number of people can make a large impact…”

600 Calories

24 Grams Fat

35% of Calories from Fat

What does this mean?  Let’s break it down…

Let’s start with the fat.

If the fast food restaurants complied with this guideline, they would reduce the fat by just 1% on average. The fat content would go from 24 grams to about 20 grams.

So the first question is: How much fat should a child get in their daily diet?

Your body needs fat to function. The reality is not all fat is bad. But, there are bad fats.

  • A healthy adult should get between 20-35% of their total calories from fat (that’s 44-78 grams per day based on 2000 calories/day) (1)
  • Children between 2-3 yrs old should get between 30-35% of daily calories from fat;
  • Children 4-18 years old should get between 25-35% of daily calories from fat (2)

So right away, you’ll notice the proposed bill puts the fat intake at the upper limits of what’s advisable.

It’s important to remember that what the government proposes concerns just one meal for the day. Dietary recommendations are for total intake throughout the day…not just one meal.

When you add in other places your kids may dine, the problem gets a little bit more complex.

The Journal of Public Health Management and Practice reported that children consume more than one-third of their daily calories at school. (3) They suggest that because of that fact, schools are a great place to improve dietary behaviors.

Range of estimated calorie requirements:

900/day for a 1 year old,

1800/day for a 14-18 year old girl and

2200/day for a 14-18 year old boy. (2)

Yet, the schools are forming their dietary guidelines on the same types of interpretations and studies the NYC bill is based on. There is a very good chance that although their efforts are commendable and heading in the right direction, they may still fall short of an ideal picture. Partly because, they are only involved in 30% of the total meals a child eats; and partly because kids may not eat the most nutritious items, even when it’s mandatory to provide them in school lunch programs.

It may come as a surprise to some, but kids don’t always do what’s good for them!

Now consider this. The types of fats recommended by the American Heart Association (the good fats) come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids which are most often found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.

Even if the daily consumption of fats falls below that 25-35% mark (as required by the laws), is the type of fat being consumed coming from the best sources? How helpful is it to say: “Ok, our meals contain no more than the allowed fats, but it’s the worse fat source available….”

Now, let’s look at Sodium

The proposal reduces the sodium to 600 mg, which is a 10% reduction to what it looks like now.

Here’s the challenge. Add 1 packet of ketchup to the meal (which would not be part of the menu calculations) and you just added 100 mg of sodium. Now ask yourself this question: Does your child ever use just one packet of ketchup on their fries?

Heck, I don’t even use just one packet of ketchup!

So how much sodium should your child consume per day?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 1500 mg/day for most U.S. adults and children. However, it’s estimated that most of us consume more than 3400 mg of sodium per day. (4)

As you can see, adding more sodium (salt) to a meal can happen pretty quickly once a child starts adding on extras like condiments.

Food prepared in restaurants and by food companies through manufactured, pre-packaged items, tend to have more sodium in them compared to food you would cook at home.

One great practice to get into in order to lower your salt intake is to avoid adding salt while you cook. Use it at the table and only after you have tasted the food to see if it’s needed..

And when you do use sale, opt for sea salt…you’ll get more minerals!

In restaurants, you can request that the kitchen add no salt to your meal and many will happily comply. If you’re wondering if it’s worth the trouble, consider that one well-known doctor recently asked the chef at his favorite restaurant how much salt, on average, he added to each entrée’.

The chef’s answer: 1 teaspoon.

That’s a whopping 2325 mg of sodium! More than the total daily recommendation.

When you consider the health risks associated with a high sodium diet:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke

And, that nearly 9 in 10 U.S. children consume more than the recommended amount of sodium, and that 1 in 6 children have elevated blood pressure (a major risk of heart disease and stroke), you can begin to understand the dangers of getting too much sodium in your diet. (5)

If those happy-type meals are regulated to just 600 mg of sodium, where is the rest coming from? According to the CDC, more that 75% of daily sodium comes from processed and restaurant food

Is there a better answer?

Introduce healthy food choices to your kids, even if they initially refuse them.

A little complaining is better than giving in to feeding them something that only serves to develop lifelong unhealthy habits and long term health problems. As the parent, and most often the mom, you have a lot of authority in regards to the health of your family.

Don’t bring home foods that are unhealthy or overly processed. After all, if it isn’t in your grocery cart, it’s not going to be in your pantry, and not going into your kids tummy.

Make fast-food or prepared options a once-in-a-while thing rather than an every night lunch or dinner option. Many of us choose take-out because it’s easy and convenient. However, learning a few planning strategies can be just as easy and convenient.

Just remember you don’t have to do all of this alone. Get your kids involved with the process. They can help with everything from planning to shopping to preparing the meals and snacks. You are more likely to get buy-in when they have a hand in the decision making and the activities involved with eating healthy.

How young can they start? As early as possible. Empower them to make good choices. Encourage them. Praise them. And teach them how to embrace the joy of being healthy.

  • Pre-cut fruits and vegetables and have them as handy “finger foods” in the fridge;
  • Have healthy-fat “dips” on hand like hummus, almond butter, or natural peanut butter (as long as your child doesn’t have allergies);
  • Prep cut fruits that can be put into a blender with yogurt or non-dairy milk to make a quick smoothie;
  • Pre-make healthy meatballs and store them in the freezer for quick sandwiches or appetizers;
  • Pre-cook ground turkey with taco seasoning for an easy dinner.