In an attempt to encourage healthier eating among children and reduce obesity, some senators are advocating to pass a state law setting health standards for kids’ meals in restaurants.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said he has made a practice – perhaps a bad habit, he added – of observing what sometimes passes for kids’ meals and drinks at restaurants: fried foods and sugary drinks. He said parents can order off the regular menu for kids but then get more food than needed.

“So we’re offering children the right kinds of meals at the right price at the right volume with the right nutrition. I think that makes all the sense,” Vitale said.

Under the bill, S529/521, the food couldn’t exceed set limits on calories, sodium, fat and sugar. The default drinks with kids’ meals would be water, 1% milk or chocolate milk or fruit juices without sugar added.

“I would like to at least make sure that families have an opportunity to offer healthier, nutritious foods for their children and not get stuck with something that is really just an afterthought in some cases,” Vitale said.

Bill sponsors say one-third of children are overweight, and one-fifth of kids’ daily calories come from restaurants.

Corinne Orlando, government relations director for the American Heart Association, said 85% of American households eat out an average of five times a week, boosting kids’ intake of calories and sugar whether at fast-food or regular restaurants.

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“Implementing nutrition standards for food and drinks in kids’ meals will make it easier for parents to make healthier choices for their children,” Orlando said.

A couple of senators opposed the bill in the health committee when it advanced in October – Democrat Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, and Republican Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic.

“As the grandmother of a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old, I’m always happy to see healthier options, but I have to question the timing,” Corrado said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and restaurants are closing right and left.”

The bill wouldn’t take effect the sixth month after its enactment – so not until June at the earliest, and that’s only if it gets through the Legislature and enacted this month.

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Sen. Bob Singer, R-Ocean, who is the vice chairman of the Ocean County Board of Health, said it wouldn’t affect every restaurant.

“We’re not making them offer children’s meals. We’re saying if you’re offering them, you should have a healthy, nutritional option,” Singer said.

The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association opposed the proposed nutrition rules for the food in kids’ meals but not limits on the types of drinks.

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