Survey finds most parents unaware of how many calories children should eat in restaurants

Menu displaying calorie information

Findings highlight need for communication efforts to accompany calorie-labeling on menus

In May, large restaurant chains across the United States will be required to post calorie counts on their menus. This is an important step in providing parents with information to make healthy choices for their children when eating out, but, according to a new study, it may not be sufficient context on its own. This new study published this week in Public Health Nutrition reveals that parents overwhelmingly under- or overestimate how many calories to feed their children, and those who made accurate estimates were not confident in their answers.

Researchers led by Dr. Christina Economos, conducted an online survey of about 1,200 parents of 5-to-12-year-olds in July 2014. Parents were asked to estimate the number of calories recommended for a child’s restaurant meal (including an entree, side dish, and drink), and to rate how confident they were in their response.

The accurate response range was 400-600 calories, while parents responded as follows:
• 35 percent answered in the accurate range
• 33 percent underestimated the number of recommended calories (<400)
• 32 percent overestimated the number of recommended calories (>600)

Only 26 percent of parents were confident in their answers, and just 10 percent were both accurate and confident.

“Parents are the greatest influencers of their children’s eating habits. We want to help them understand that they can make simple changes in their ordering patterns to keep children’s meals within the recommended caloric range and encourage healthy habits overall,” said Christina Economos, Ph.D., director of ChildObesity180 and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “What we’ve seen in this study suggests that parents may not yet have the necessary context to put calorie information to good use, so it will be important to couple this information with additional outreach to parents.”

The survey also explored whether calorie awareness was associated with parents’ socio-demographic characteristics, such as income, and frequency of eating restaurant food. Parents who dined frequently at restaurants with their children, had lower incomes, or lived in urban areas had lower odds of answering correctly. Higher confidence was reported by those who dined frequently at restaurants with their children despite lower accuracy of their responses.

These findings highlight the need for public health efforts to go beyond the numbers in helping parents make informed choices in restaurants. Last fall, ChildObesity180 piloted You’re the Mom, a public health campaign that educates and empowers moms to choose healthier options for their children when ordering at quick-service restaurants. Advocating for simple swaps like choosing water over soda, You’re the Mom celebrates mothers for the important role they play in their family and community. The campaign includes a digital resource hub at www.YoureTheMom.org.

Support for this research was provided in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The JPB Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.

About ChildObesity180: Aiming for a “180” on Childhood Obesity
Based at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, our premise is unique: Top national leaders from the private, public, nonprofit, and academic sectors committed to developing, measuring, and implementing evidence-based solutions to reverse the alarming epidemic of childhood obesity in America. For more information, visit www.ChildObesity180.org.

Share