Three Reasons Why Kids Get Hooked on “Kids’ Meals”… and How to Change That

chicken

Let me say this up front: I’m not condemning the American Kids’ Meal that is so common in fast food chains and family restaurants, but clearly I’m not keen on eating that type of food when there are other choices.   My own kids have certainly had their fair share of chicken nuggets, mac n’cheese and French fries, just to name a few of the comfort kid foods that predictably reappear on kids’ menus day after day.   This is not a blog about good vs. healthy nutrition, because most parents (including me) know that the traditional fast food fare is not healthy…and that’s exactly why parents want to change the statistics that 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go to McDonald’s  “at least once a day.”    The millions of dollars spent on advertising and toys to market kids meals certainly makes many of us frustrated when much less is spent on marketing a culture of wellness.  By hooked, I don’t mean addicted, although there is research that suggests that food addiction may be a serious component for a subset of the pediatric population Plus, the added sugars in processed foods have been found to be addictive in lab experiments.  But, for the purposes of this short article, let’s keep kids’ meals in this very small box:  Most kids love them.

Why am I writing about this for ASHA? As a pediatric SLP who focuses on feeding, one of the frequent comments I hear from parents is “As long we’ve got chicken nuggets,  then my kid will eat.”   Besides the obvious “just say no” solution, what parents truly are asking is,  “How do I expand my kid’s diet to include more than what’s on a kids’ menu?”  Whether we are considering our pediatric clients in feeding therapy or simply the garden-variety picky eater, that is an excellent question with not a very simple answer.

In feeding therapy, therapists take into account the child’s physiology (which includes the sensory system), the child’s gross motor, fine motor and oral motor skills  and also behaviors that affect feeding practices.  Therapists then create a treatment plan designed to help that specific child progress through the developmental process of eating.  While the nuances of learning to bite, chew and swallow a variety of foods are too complex to cover in a short blog post, here are just three of the reasons why kids get hooked on kids’ meals and some strategies to avoid being locked into the standard kids’ menu and begin to expand a child’s variety of preferred foods:

  1. Kids barely have to chew.  The common fast food chicken nugget is a chopped mixture of …well, if you want to know, click here.  Warning: it will ruin your appetite for chicken nuggets, so if your kids can read,  clicking might be the first solution.  However, in terms of oral motor skills, bites of chicken nuggets are a first food that even an almost toothless toddler can consume with relative ease.  Simply gum, squish and swallow.  Macaroni and cheese?  Oily French fries?  Ditto.  There’s  not a lot of chomping going on!
  • In feeding therapy, SLPs assess a child’s oral motor skills and may begin to address strengthening a child’s ability to use a rotary chew, manage the food easily and swallow safely.  Many of the families we work with eat fast food on a regular basis and we might start with those foods, but slowly over time, more variety is introduced.
  • For general picky eaters or those progressing in feeding therapy, the key is to offer small samplings of foods that DO require chewing, as long as a parent feels confident that their child is safe to do so.  Starting early with a variety of manageable solids, as described in this article for ASHA, is often the first step.   For older kids, the texture (and comfort) of “squish and swallow” foods can contribute to food jags.  Here are ten tips for preventing food jags, including how to build your child’s familiarity around something other than the drive-thru.
  1. At restaurant chains and drive-thrus, kids’ meals are readily available.  Helpful hostesses grab the crayons and the matching kids’ menus as soon as they spot a parent walking in with little children.  Kiddos quickly become conditioned to ordering mac n’ cheese or hot dogs.   Parents want a peaceful, enjoyable experience dining out, so naturally they like the kids’ menu option because it appeases everyone.  But it’s just that–an option.
  • In feeding therapy,  SLPs assess and often treat a child’s ability to be flexible with food at home and in the community.  A hierarchical approach is often utilized, where exposure to new foods occurs as a gradual process over time.
  • As a parent, if your child likes to stick to the same routine at a restaurant, begin with helping your child order from the “adult” menu, knowing that you can request adaptions to certain dishes if needed.  If the prices feel too steep, order a side for the kids, and give them samplings of everything on your plate.  Keep in mind that often the goal is simply experiencing the presence of new foods, so order a side dish that is a favorite food plus present a selection of new options from your plate if you are concerned your child will not eat anything.  Now you and your child have a new routine and the tasting piece occurs once the routine is established.   If you order a salad in the drive-thru, consider skipping the kids’ meal and creating a kid’s sampling of grilled chicken cubes, sunflower seeds, mandarin oranges or other options directly from your salad when you arrive at your destination.   Request an extra packet of dressing if your kids like to dip.
  1. Kids Meals are QUICK! Quick to buy, quick to eat and quick to raise blood sugars and thus, feel satisfied.  I get it – part of today’s hectic lifestyle is shuttling kids to and from activities and often, mealtimes happen while riding in the mini-van.  Fast food chains understand this too – that’s why it’s marketed as “fast food.”
  • In feeding therapy, this reliance on drive-thru food affects progress in therapy.  For example, it’s not uncommon for elementary school kids in feeding therapy to  have trouble eating in the chaotic school cafeteria and be “starving” when a parent picks them up from school.  The quickest, easiest solution: The drive-thru every day after school.
  • In today’s quick-fix society, our children are losing the valuable skill of waiting.  Feeling hungry and then making a snack or meal together to satisfy growling bellies is one way to practice the art of waiting.  Have some pre-cut veggies ready in the refrigerator to nibble on if waiting for the meal is too challenging.  Besides, it’s the perfect time to place them on the counter while your prepping the entrée because you’ve got hunger on your side!  Hint: Blanched veggies, patted dry and then chilled, hold more moisture and taste slightly sweeter to some kids.  The higher moisture content makes them easier to crunch, chew and swallow.  Most blanched fresh vegetables last for several days in the refrigerator.  Remember, keep presenting fresh foods so that the more common option is a healthy one, rather than the oh-so-well marketed processed foods found on many kids’ menus today.

SLPs and parents, what strategies do you use do limit traditional kid food and help kids become more adventurous eaters?  Please comment and share your tips!

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating.  She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food!  Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is  offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee.  She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.