Skip to content

Fast Food Is Exploding in Popularity For This Concerning Reason, New Poll Shows

One in five parents is turning to the drive-thru for themselves and/or their kids more than ever before.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

You don't have to be a dietician to know that fast food may be convenient and affordable, but leaves a whole lot to be desired from a nutritional perspective. Unfortunately, a new poll reports that roughly one in five parents are feeding their kids more fast food ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Why are so many moms and dads heading toward the local drive-thru more often? According to the University of Michigan's latest C.S. Mott National Poll on Children's Health, the answer is one we can all relate to: stress. About 20% of the surveyed 2,019 U.S. parents of children between the ages of three and 18 told researchers they're just too stressed out some days to worry about cooking a nutritious, balanced meal for their families.

"The pandemic disrupted many family routines, including where and what they eat," comments poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H. "We know families' lifestyles can impact children's diets, and we looked to see how the pandemic may have changed their eating habits."

Now, "more often" is of course a bit of an abstract statement, but this next finding isn't: One in six parents are feeding their children fast food at least twice per week. That's a lot of happy meal toys. Unsurprisingly, parents who are feeding their children fast food on a bi-weekly basis are also nearly twice as likely to say their child is overweight.

Keep reading for more alarming findings from the poll, and for more, check out the 100 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.

A salty cycle

fast food
Shutterstock

Interestingly, the poll seems to paint a picture of many parents who know they're not doing their kids any nutritional favors, yet continue to return to the convenience of fast food. A full 85% fully admit that fast food is indisputably unhealthy, but a very similar percentage (84%) also add that caveat that "fast food is OK in moderation."

Besides stress, 43% say they're often just too busy to prepare a home-cooked meal. Again, this sentiment was most common among parents caring for an overweight child.

On a related note, 72% of all surveyed parents consider fast food to be a "good dinner option" when pressed for time. Another 33% see fast food as attractive from a value perspective, and 24% appreciate that it's much cheaper than cooking at home.

"Parents mostly acknowledge that fast food isn't an ideal choice but see it as an acceptable 'sometimes food,'" Dr. Freed adds.

Related: Sign up for our newsletter for the latest healthy eating news.

Who's really in charge?

Shutterstock

One would assume that mom or dad usually chooses what Jr. will eat, but this poll actually found the opposite. Nearly all parents (88%) allow their kids to choose their fast food meals, and only one in three parents even bother to read the nutritional information and guidance available at fast-food restaurants. Thankfully, 67% at least "encourage" their kids to go for healthier menu options.

"One fast-food meal often exceeds the recommended fat, sodium, and calorie intake for the entire day without providing many nutrients," Dr. Freed explains. "Parents should consider using nutritional information to help their kids learn how to make healthier choices. Trying to make those meals even a little bit healthier can have an important impact."

Related: These Are the Unhealthiest Fast Food Burgers

Water, please

fast food
Shutterstock

It's tough to find any food item on a typical fast-food menu that's going to be truly healthy, but soft drinks and sodas actually represent some of the largest sources of both calories and sugar available at fast-food joints. Sure enough, parents of an overweight child were nearly twice as likely to tell researchers that their child usually has a soft drink with their fast food in comparison to parents with a child considered of normal weight (54% versus 31%).

"Consuming sugary drinks poses a real health risk to both kids and adults," Dr. Freed explains. "It increases children's risk of excess weight gain and tooth decay, and preventable conditions such as obesity."

Related: 112 Most Popular Sodas Ranked By How Toxic They Are

The silver lining

30-something woman and man and a young child eating salad at home
Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia

On a happier note, the poll wasn't all doom and gloom from a nutritional perspective. While about one in five parents may be feeding their kids more fast food, a full 66% told the research team their family has adopted healthier eating habits since the onset of the pandemic. Similarly, 50% of surveyed parents prepare more home-cooked meals than they did before COVID-19.

"We were encouraged to see that for many families, pandemic-related lifestyle changes seemed to actually prompt healthier eating habits," Dr. Freed concludes. "But for others, there were challenges and demands that may have made it difficult to maintain healthy eating, which can negatively impact children's health."

For more healthy eating news, check out the 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more
Filed Under