AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As many Americans try to eat more healthfully, chain restaurants are stepping up efforts to revamp their kids meals. This month, McDonald's and Panera both announced some changes to what they will be offering their young customers. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk all about this. Hey, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: Thanks for coming on. So let's start with the changes at Panera. What's new there?
AUBREY: Sure. Panera has decided that kids should be offered something more than the standard fare - so something more than chicken nuggets and fries, something more than mac and cheese.
AUBREY: What they've announced is that most of the things on the regular menu, their adult menu, can now be ordered in kids size - so smaller portion, slightly lower prices. I've got some examples here. I went yesterday to check it out. So here's something. You could order squash soup right here in a small size. This is a nice flatbread sandwich. It's got some cranberries, some greens, lots of greens, actually.
CHANG: It looks very whole-grainy (ph).
AUBREY: Turkey - it's absolutely whole-grain.
AUBREY: And then here a salad - so lots of greens, some feta cheese. It's a Greek-style salad, some quinoa on the top.
CHANG: OK, wait. I just need to do a reality check here.
CHANG: I'm looking at something very green and full of bumpy quinoa.
AUBREY: (Laughter) Right.
CHANG: Do you actually see kids eating this stuff?
AUBREY: Very good question. Yesterday when I went to check out the new menu options, I took my 6-year-old daughter, Lillian (ph). And the man behind the counter explained to her, hey, you can get any of these options in kids size. And she said no, thanks. I'll have the mac and cheese.
CHANG: (Laughter) My kind of girl.
AUBREY: So you know, I think that kids are conditioned to eating this way. And interestingly, the CEO of Panera, Ron Shaich, in announcing these changes - he kind of called out the CEOs of all fast food chains, saying, you know, we need to rethink how we're feeding kids. Here's a little cut of him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RON SHAICH: In fact I challenge the CEOs of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King to eat off of their kids menu for a week or to re-evaluate what they're serving our children in their restaurants.
CHANG: Nice. He's throwing down the gauntlet.
AUBREY: He is.
CHANG: Bring it on.
AUBREY: He is.
CHANG: Have there been any responses to this challenge?
AUBREY: Well, I spoke to him this morning, and he said he has gotten no response from any of these chains, which of course are his competitors. But I did communicate with McDonald's today, and what they point out is that, hey, we've made changes, too, to our kids meal, and we're proud of our changes. They said several years back, they cut the portion size of fries in Happy Meals. They also automatically now offer apple slices, yogurt sticks to their kids meals. And the latest is this. Check this out. These are juice boxes. So this is your traditional...
CHANG: Oh, yeah.
AUBREY: ...Apple juice box. It's...
CHANG: Mott's apple juice.
AUBREY: ...Got more than 20 grams of sugar. This is what they're moving to. It's an Honest Tea-brand organic juice. It has half the sugar. So...
CHANG: That's good.
AUBREY: They're really - they're promoting this, saying, hey, you know, we're cutting the sugar, making it a little healthier. These are some examples.
CHANG: So are these changes that they're making actually making a difference nutritionally, or is this just kind of marketing going on here?
AUBREY: Well, you know, there's certainly a lot of marketing here. I mean at a time when all the science points to the harms of excessive sugar and salt consumption, chains are now competing on health. And if you can say...
AUBREY: ...Hey, we're now serving organic juice, that sounds healthier to people. I'd say big picture here is that the meals that kids are eating at restaurants when they eat out are not the kind of meals that you might imagine we are advised to eat. The dietary guidelines say, hey, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables and whole grains. That's not what I see when I go out to most chain...
CHANG: (Laughter) Right.
AUBREY: ...Restaurants, right? But you can't change people's eating habits overnight. I mean...
AUBREY: ...People like burgers and fries. Kids...
CHANG: I'm one of them (laughter).
AUBREY: ...Like chicken nuggets, right? So I think that chains are starting to make iterative, small changes bit by bit, right? You add the fruit. Then you add the vegetable. You add more salads. You add healthier drinks. And then a lot of experts agree that these are all steps in the right direction.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.
AUBREY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.