Panera Says ‘No No’ to Unhealthy Kids’ Meals

The chain is overhauling its offerings and wants others to follow suit.
(Photo: Mike Mozart/Creative Commons)
Aug 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Last year, when Panera Bread announced that it would phase out from its menu a number of ingredients commonly used in quick-service restaurant food, the banned items were dubbed the “No No List.” It’s the kind of terminology that a four-year-old would readily understand—These are bad things to eat—and it has now, fittingly, led to an overhaul of the restaurant’s kids’ menu, which will debut on Sept. 7.

The updated menu features bland kid classics such as buttered noodles, mac and cheese, and chicken noodle soup, along with more, well, ambitious dishes like clam chowder—each of which is served with either a fruit-flavored yogurt tube, an apple, or bread. All meals are served with water, and organic milk or 100 percent juice can be purchased for an additional cost. It’s a far cry from a Happy Meal—and that’s part of the point.

In announcing the new menu, CEO Ron Shaich made it clear that this isn’t just about how his company serves its youngest diners. Rather, he’s challenging the industry as a whole to follow suit.

“Frankly, the typical restaurant-industry kids meal doesn’t serve our kids well,” Shaich told CNBC in a statement. “We shouldn’t be marketing to kids. Toys and games distract from honest food choices. They come with poor options like fries and sugary beverages. This is not food as it should be. The meals we serve our children should be good food.”

The lack of sugary drinks, fried foods, and movie marketing tie-in toys on the Panera kids’ menu makes it look far better in the eyes of public health experts, who have criticized both the nutritional content and the heavy branding of kids’ meals replete with soda, fries, and toys.

A 2013 study on how fast-food chains market to kids concluded that “advertisements emphasized toy giveaways and movie tie-ins rather than food products. Self-regulatory pledges to focus on actual food products instead of toy premiums were not supported by this analysis.” Many chains have made minor adjustments to kids’ meal offerings; McDonald’s, for example, has added apples and milk as an alternative choice to fries and a soda. McDonald’s also recently said that it would stop using artificial coloring—something included on Panera’s “No No List”—in its Chicken McNuggets.

But while parents may feel better serving their kids food made without artificial ingredients, far more research supports that overconsumption of sugar, empty calories, and bad fats present more of a health risk than small amounts of Yellow No. 5 or sodium benzoate. What’s sodium benzoate, you ask? In a video on its website, Panera put that question to a couple of kids, who came up with answers like it’s a “lone wolf” who likes to ruin things or it is “probably like a really, really big egg that’s red and has one eye.” Consider it an update to the Michael Pollan adage that you shouldn’t eat food made with ingredients your great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize—the same, perhaps, goes for children.

Neither a wolf nor an egg, sodium benzoate is a preservative—one whose consumption has been linked to cell damage in humans but is considered safe to consume in the low amounts used in processed foods. Is eating it more of a risk to a kid’s well-being than the 2.5 teaspoons of sugar—more than half of a recommended daily serving—in one of the organic yogurt tubes that Panera serves? It would seem that Shaich believes so—and would like to convince McDonald’s and others in the industry to think so too.