“The pandemic disrupted many family routines, including where and what they eat,” said Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H., poll co-director and Mott pediatrician, who noted the goal of the survey was to determine how the pandemic has impacted the eating habits of families based on responses from a nationally-representative sample of 2,019 parents of children aged 3-18.
Fast food acceptable in moderation
While almost all parents agree that fast food is unhealthy for their children, more than four in five feel it is OK in moderation, according to the poll.
“Parents mostly acknowledge that fast food isn’t an ideal choice but see it as an acceptable ‘sometimes food,’” Freed noted.
Three-quarters of parents also agreed with the statement that when stressed for time, fast food is a good family meal option. One-third of parents said fast food is good value and 24% feel that it is less expensive than making meals at home and a more convenient option. According to the survey, 40% of parents report being too busy to cook at home, while 20% said they were too stressed.
But when it comes to what parents allow their kids to order at fast food restaurants, a vast majority (88%) allow their kids to order what they want while one in three parents reported reading nutritional information at fast food restaurants. Just over two-thirds (67%) of parents, however, say they encourage their kids to choose the healthier option and limit unhealthy items such as fries and milkshakes.
Fast food consumption varied by parents’ perception of their child’s weight. Parents who said their child was overweight (the report did not specify a specific weight range) were nearly twice as likely to visit a fast food restaurant twice a week vs. parents of children within a normal weight range (33% vs. 17%).
Unhealthy meal choices were also more prevalent among parents who said their children were overweight – 54% of parents of overweight children reported their child ordered a soda with their fast food meal, vs. 31% of children of normal weight.
“Most fast food items are loaded with calories, sodium, and saturated fat; one meal at a fast-food restaurant often exceeds the recommended fat, sodium and calorie intake for the entire day, while providing little nutrients or fiber,” noted Freed.
According to the CDC, between 2015–2018, children and adolescents consumed an average of 13.8% of their calories from fast food on any given day, up from 12.4% in 2011 to 2012.
In 2018, McDonald’s shared its long-term goal to improve the nutritional standards of its Happy Meals to ensure that 50% or more of its Happy Meal Bundles Offering listed on menus across 120 markets meet the company’s meal nutrition criteria by 2022, which states that meals must have 600 or fewer calories, 650mg of sodium or less, and 10% or fewer calories coming from saturated fat and added sugar.
In 2019, on average, 43% of Happy Meal Bundles met the Nutrition Criteria, an improvement of 32% in 2018.
Pandemic has encouraged healthier eating habits
While many parents surveyed said fast food is an easier, less stressful option when it comes to family meal time, roughly half of parents also reported increased consumption of home-cooked meals since March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic and COVID shutdowns.
Freed noted several contributing factors, including more parents working from home with potentially increased opportunities to make meals, and families possibly feeling unsafe at restaurants.
“We were encouraged to see that for many families, pandemic-related lifestyle changes seemed to actually prompt healthier eating habits,” said Freed.
“But for others, there were challenges and demands that may have made it difficult to maintain healthy eating, which can negatively impact children’s health.”