THE BLOG
02/25/2016 11:36 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Soda-Free Kids Meals Support Families

As a parent, I'm a work in progress. I have two young kids who literally run circles around me most days. Usually while trying to poke each other. So I'm always exploring new ways to 1) keep my sanity and 2) gently instill in them the behaviors and values they need as kids, and later as adults. I know that my role is to help my kids successfully navigate their world (which hopefully doesn't include a muddy jaunt over my couch), and I do the best that I can to succeed. 
 
I'm also an advocate for healthy kids and communities, and spend a lot of time working with other parents, schools and decision makers to ensure that all kids have access to healthy and nutritious foods. 
 
These two identities are totally consistent. As a parent, I do my best. As an advocate, I know it truly takes a village to build healthy communities. 
 
Yet too often I hear pushback on common sense measures like limiting junk food marketing to kids or removing soda from their reach. This pushback is often centered on personal choice, the idea that parents and kids should just know better. Now, I'm a fairly patient person, but this is where I start to get testy. Here's why: 
 
Newsflash: My kids don't live in a bubble. Case in point: Every day during the month of December my son pointed out a billboard ad for a local store that has a turkey and pig driving a sleigh full of shrimp. I'll pause and let you visualize the sleigh -- it's pretty funny and incredibly memorable, right? Exactly. Does he mention it and want to know what it's selling every. single. day? Yes. 
 
My kids' world isn't just the one I carefully craft for them at home. They go to school. We go shopping. We eat out. They see ads on billboards, in magazines and on TV. They're exposed to marketing, products and junk food in all of these places. In fact, food and beverage companies spend almost $2 billion per year marketing their products to our kids. A lot of that comes to them in sneaky ways, like on a cell phone or YouTube channel. Even if I were able to hover over their shoulder all the time, I'm no match for $2 billion worth of advertising. Let's be real.
 
And I'll pause to underline a key word here: kids. While I might be able to say "no," or push back on an ad or sneaky character trying to get them to buy the "hot snack" of the moment, it's much harder for my kids to resist on their own. In fact, data show younger kids don't even recognize what marketing is, or its persuasive intent.
 
Take-away: Kids are vulnerable, even when parents do their very best to shield them from unhealthy foods and beverages. 
 
Families eat out almost twice as often as they did in the 1970s, and kids consume about 1/4 of their daily calories at fast-food and other restaurants. Why? Families are BUSY, juggling schedules, kids, and finances. It's nearly impossible for a family to survive on just one salary, and finding affordable childcare is a real challenge for too many. Is it realistic to expect every family to make home-made, healthy meals every night? Absolutely not. Eating fast food or in a restaurant isn't a function of poor parenting or planning. For many, it's part of daily life.  
 
Unfortunately, over 95 percent of restaurants don't have a single healthy kids meal on the menu. Many offer soda as a default beverage, even though sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in kids' diets. Drinking just one extra sugary drink every day increases a child's risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.   
 
Pretty sobering, right? So when you combine advertising to kids, busy parents, and unhealthy restaurant menus, you get a dangerous mix for families. 
 
That's why it's such a big deal that restaurants like Applebee's, IHOP, Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, and now Jack in the Box have removed soda as the default beverage in kids' meals. Tens of thousands of moms like me have spoken out about the importance of healthy drinks on kids' menus, and the restaurants are listening.
 
Getting soda out of kid's meals a solid move that supports healthy kids and families. It also recognizes and respects the realities that kids are vulnerable, families are busy and marketing works. 
 
This doesn't mean parents expect companies to raise their kids (although I'm always open to some free babysitting on a Friday night). Indeed, parents should teach their kids to eat healthy foods, cook at home when they can, and keep their family active. But we're just one part of the equation. Our kids and families are part of a broader community.
 
I expect my kids' school to teach them and I expect the park down the street to be safe for them to play in. I should be able to expect the restaurants we go to to offer healthy choices. It's about time restaurants really own their role as part of the community and respond to the demands of their customers. 
 
As a parent, these are the kinds of restaurants where I'm going to spend my money. And I know I'm not alone. Parents don't want to start off every meal in a restaurant with an argument with our kids about the soda listed on the kids menu. We are watching for businesses that support our families and communities, and will support those that do.