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How Much Fast Food Is Too Much Fast Food?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Face it. Most children love fast food and fast food companies cater specifically to children. Happy Meals, Playland, Ronald McDonald, and that cute, freckle-faced Wendy, they all say “kids are welcome here!”

At the same time, fast food meals are often very high in fat, salt and sugar and low in nutritional value. Even when nutritional information is posted, parents do not change what they order for their children. We all know the nutritional issues with fast food, but we buy our kids what they want to eat, not what is good for them.

This isn’t a problem if fast food is just an occasional meal – once a month or so. A treat of burger and fries or hot dog and a milkshake is just that – a lovely treat. But a new California study finds that for many children, a fast food dinner is not unusual event. It’s an every week ritual.

In fact, 60% of all children between ages of 2 and 5 were found in this study to eat a fast food meal at least once a week. Twenty-nine percent ate at a fast food restaurant twice in any given week and 10% ate more than twice. These numbers are the same as what was found in studies conducted in five or six years ago. The study’s lead author, Susan Holtby, said “A weekly happy meal is an unhappy solution, especially for toddlers.”

In addition, although this study found that children are drinking fewer sugar-sweetened drinks than they used to do, children who eat two or three fast food meals are much more likely than other kids to drink soda. Says Holtby, “Fast food combined with drinking soda at such a young age can set these kids up for obesity-related health problems.”

Although fast food has sometimes been labeled the food of choice of poorer parents, this study found that middle class parents were much more likely to say they don’t have a lot of influence over what their children eat and to use that as an excuse for feeding their children fast food meals. This finding leads to the first suggestion of what to do about this:

  1. Be the parent. Limit fast food meals to treat status and make certain small children, in particular, do not eat at fast food restaurants on a weekly basis. You do indeed have influence over what your children eat.
  2. When you do permit your child to eat fast food, choose wisely. Select the apple slices option over French fries and order plain milk over flavored milk or soda. Limit how much you order for your child and don’t order dessert.
  3. Balance fast food with really good nutrition. Make certain that your child’s “usual” meals are heavy on fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. Don’t serve soda or flavored milk at home.
  4. Never use fast food as a reward. Whatever we use as rewards is instantly elevated into something more worthy than the alternative. If you must use rewards with your child, use something like reading a book together or playing a game.

Many of us grew up on fast food and we love it as much as our children do. Part of improving children’s nutrition might include improving our own. Eat well. Be healthier and smarter.

But most of all, fuel your children with the right stuff.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.