The Real Reason Taco Bell Killed Kids Meals

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The decision came down to money, not concerns about nutrition or childhood obesity. In fact, after eliminating kids meals, Taco Bell may wind up feeding just as many children as it did in the past—and they’re likely to pay more, while scarfing down even more calories.

For the most part, Taco Bell’s announcement this week that it would become the “first quick service restaurant to discontinue kid’s meals and toys nationally” was greeted by nutrition experts as a step in the right direction. “To give them credit, this is a more positive approach than creating a meal marketed to kids that’s not healthy,” Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said in a phone interview.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), released a statement urging “McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and others to follow Taco Bell’s lead and stop using toys or other premiums to lure kids to meals of poor nutritional quality.”

Despite positioning itself as an industry trendsetter (“first quick service restaurant …”), Taco Bell isn’t pretending to suddenly be obsessed with health food and nutrition. No one would buy that. This is a restaurant chain, after all, that OK’d an ad that mocked vegetarians not along ago. Instead, Taco Bell decided to get rid of kids meals because they weren’t big money makers. “Kid’s meals are not part of Taco Bell’s long-term brand strategy and have had an insignificant impact on system sales,” the company’s press release stated.

(MORE: Why We’re Eating Fewer Happy Meals)

The elimination of kids meals may also resound with Taco Bell’s core customers in their teens and 20s. “It’s fairly inconsistent for an edgy, twentysomething brand to offer kids meals,” Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed said. The kids meal link on Taco Bell’s website is already dead, and kids meals will disappear nationwide at Taco Bell restaurants by early next year.

Unlike McDonald’s, whose Happy Meals have been estimated to account for 10% of all sales, kids meals constituted less than 1% of sales at Taco Bell, according to USA Today. As fast food restaurants have increasingly felt pressure to make kids meals more nutritious and also stop marketing to children, “it was probably easier for Taco Bell to give up entirely” on kids meals, said the Rudd Center’s Harris. “Kids meals just weren’t worth the trouble” for the chain, in Harris’s opinion.

It’s especially easy for Taco Bell to cut kids meals because the company has spent very little in the way of marketing to children over the years. The Rudd Center estimates that the food industry spends $1.8 billion annually marketing to kids, but Taco Bell executives say the company hasn’t promoted kids meals on TV or on social media in more than a dozen years. “The advertising on TV is very effective,” Harris said, pointing to the Rudd Center’s 2010 study indicating that 40% of parents said their children asked to go to McDonald’s at least once a week.

What’s interesting is that, because Taco Bell doesn’t advertise to kids, and the marketing of its kids meals had essentially been limited to within its restaurants, taking kids meals off the menu may not decrease the number of children eating at Taco Bell. “It’s possible kids who go there regularly and like getting the toys may not ask their parents to eat at Taco Bell as much,” said Harris. But she doesn’t foresee a significant dropoff in kids as Taco Bell customers.

(MORE: Study: Fast Food Ads Target Kids with Unhealthy Food, and It Works)

As for the kids who keep on coming into Taco Bell in the post-kids meal era, they’ll have to order off the adult menu—and the result is likely to be something that costs more and is less nutritional than the nonexistent kids meal. “Dropping the kids’ menu may lead parents to order higher calorie meals off the regular menu,” CSPI’s Wootan said, “and it’s not as if its adult menu is full of health food.”