How did COVID impact kids’ fast food habits?

For some families, pandemic times have meant increased screen time, attending class from bedrooms and maybe even more dinners from a drive through.

While many parents say their family has eaten healthier since the start of the pandemic, one in five report their children ate fast food more often, according to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

“The pandemic disrupted many family routines, including where and what they eat,” said Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H., Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician.

“We know families’ lifestyles can impact children’s diets, and we looked to see how the pandemic may have changed their eating habits.”

Around one in six parents say their child eats fast food at least twice a week, reports the nationally representative poll, which is based responses from 2,019 parents of children aged 3-18.

Families’ views on fast food consumption varied based on parents’ perceptions of their child’s weight.

Parents who said their kids are overweight were almost twice as likely to say their children have fast food at least twice a week, compared to those who say their kids are at a normal weight.

Parents also identified some barriers to home cooked meals. Around 40% of parents reported being too busy to cook and one in five said they were too stressed. These challenges were also reported more commonly among parents with kids who were overweight.

Views on fast food

While almost all parents agree that fast food is unhealthy for their children, more than four in five feel it’s OK in moderation, according to the poll. Three-quarters of parents also agree with the statement that when stressed for time, fast food is a good family option.

A third of parents also say that fast food is good value for the money and 24% feel it is less expensive than making meals at home.

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“Parents mostly acknowledge that fast food isn’t an ideal choice, but see it as an acceptable ‘sometimes food,’” Freed said.

But parents don’t usually dictate their kids’ food choices at fast food restaurants, with 88% allowing their child to choose what they eat and only one in three parents reading the nutritional information. Sixty-seven percent of parents, however, say they encourage their child to choose healthier options and try to limit unhealthy items like fries and milkshakes.

“One fast food meal often exceeds the recommended fat, sodium and calorie intake for the entire day without providing many nutrients,” Freed said. “Parents should consider using nutritional information to help their kids learn how to make healthier choices. Trying to make those meals even a little bit healthier can have an important impact.”

Among the least healthy items on the menu are soft drinks and soda, which often contain the single largest source of calories for many fast food meals and have also been associated with childhood obesity.

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