More restaurant chains offer fruits and vegetables with children’s meals than they did in 2008, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls it a “disappointing improvement” in the overall nutrition of the meals.

The Washington D.C.-based non-profit group released a study March 28, reporting that 97% of the 3,498 combinations available on kids’ menus from 34 restaurant chains did not meet nutritional criteria based on recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We need restaurants to do a lot more to give parents a fighting chance to find healthy things for their kids to eat,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for CSPI, during a March 28 press conference.

Cost, which has often been cited by the restaurant industry as a reason more fruits and vegetables are not included on menus, was dismissed by Wootan as a myth.

“An apple is cheaper than a bag of chips and a grilled chicken leg isn’t more expensive than a fried one,” Wootan said. “Almost any meal is improved if you pair an entrée with a fruit or vegetable.”

CSPI awards failing grades for children's mealsBryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said restaurant operators are beginning to understand that they need to consider the “plate cost” of the food they serve instead of looking at the prices of individual commodities.

“Value-added products that are ready to serve have actually helped reduce costs,” Silbermann said.

He said fresh-cut produce is safe, and reduces labor costs and waste. Silbermann also said fresh fruits and vegetables give restaurants something they can effectively market.

“Produce adds flavor, color and texture,” Silbermann said. “You can sell that to consumers.”

The National Restaurant Association is already encouraging members to offer more fresh produce by participating with PMA’s Foodservice 2020 initiative. The initiative’s goal is to see produce offerings on menus double by the year 2020. The International Foodservice Distributors Association is also involved in the initiative.

CSPI awards failing grades for children's mealsAnother effort by the NRA received high praise from the CSPI’s Wootan when she recommended restaurants participate in the “Kids LiveWell” program.

Joy Dubost, nutrition director for the NRA, said the voluntary program has attracted more than 120 restaurant brands as participants since its launch 18 months ago.

“Participating restaurants offer and promote healthful meals for children that focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthful fats, sugars and sodium,” Dubose said.

However, the CSPI report pointed out that 91% of kids’ meals at the country’s “major restaurant chains” don’t meet the nutritional standards set by the NRA program. the full report is available at online

To help drive the point home, the CSPI enlisted two heavy hitters who aren’t as heavy as they used to be: Jared “The Subway Guy” Fogle and Noah “Biingo” Gray, the 13-year-old participant from the television series “The Biggest Loser.”

Subway was the only restaurant chain to have all of its kids’ meal combinations meet the CSPI’s nutritional criteria. The restaurant chain also recently earned recognition from the Produce for Better Health foundation.