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20th Jul 2017

This restaurant item can help children choose healthier foods

Seriously, chicken nuggets again?

Alison Bough

children healthy food restaurants menus placemats

It turns out that restaurant placemats have other uses except colouring in…

children healthy food restaurants menus placemats

Children’s placemats can be used to encourage kids to choose healthier food in restaurants, according to a new study by the University at Buffalo and Independent Health Foundation.

Researchers used the dining accessory, commonly printed with games, puzzles and colouring-in pictures, as a tool to promote healthier menu options in fun and engaging ways.

While hot dogs and chicken nuggets remained the meal of choice for most of the four- to eight-year-olds who participated in the study, the placemats helped convince some children to choose healthier options such as turkey on wholegrain bread (called the ‘Gobble-Me-Up Turkey Sandwich’) or a peanut butter and banana sandwich (‘The Nutty Monkey’). Children exposed to the placemats prior to ordering were more likely to choose healthier food options compared to a control group.

Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, an assistant professor in the University of Buffalo’s department of paediatrics, presented the findings this week at the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behaviour conference in Montreal, Canada.

“Many families eat food from restaurants on a regular basis, with research suggesting that children tend to consume less healthy foods in these settings compared to home. In this study, our goal was to feature healthier children’s meal options prominently to see whether this could affect children’s orders and intake.”

Half of the children taking part in the study were given a placemat promoting two healthier children’s options. The meals were listed alongside fun names and images, as well as activities such as a word search. The rest of the children were in a control group and received no placemats.

Children who were exposed to the placemats before ordering were significantly more likely to order healthier food options. Eighteen percent of the children in the placemat group ordered one of the featured healthier entrées, compared to just seven percent in the control group. However, it will come as no surprise to parents that the groups did not differ in the likelihood of ordering dessert.

Anzman-Frasca says restaurants can help promote healthier eating among children by featuring healthier items more prominently:

“Making healthy options appealing and easy to choose offers the potential to increase children’s acceptance of them in restaurants. At the same time, there is room for future efforts to build on the current results, aiming to normalise healthy options in restaurants further and nudge even more children toward healthier choices.”