US law mandates that chain restaurants with 20 or more locations post calorie information on their menus to inform consumers and encourage healthy choices. Few qualitative studies have assessed how parents perceive and use this information when ordering for their children and what types of accompanying messages might increase use of calorie labels when ordering food.
We aimed to better understand parents' perceptions and use of calorie labeling and the types of messages that might increase use.
We conducted 10 focus groups (n = 58) and 20 shop-along interviews (n = 20). Focus group participants discussed their hypothetical orders and restaurant experiences when dining with their children, and shop-along participants verbalized their decision processes while ordering at a restaurant. Both groups gave feedback on 4 public service messages aimed to increase healthier ordering for children. All interviews were voice-recorded and transcribed.
Participants were primary caregivers of at least 1 child between 6 and 12 years who reported having less than a college education at the time of screening and who commonly ate at chain restaurants. Focus groups were conducted in a conference room, and shop-alongs were conducted in quick-serve and full-service chain restaurants around Philadelphia between August 2016 and May 2017.
A modified grounded theory approach was used to extract themes from transcripts.
Thematic analysis of transcripts revealed 5 key themes: (1) parents' use of calorie labels; (2) differences across restaurant settings; (3) nonjudgmental information; (4) financial value and enjoyment of food; and (5) message preferences. These themes suggested that nonjudgmental, fact-based messages that highlight financial value, feelings of fullness, and easy meal component swaps without giving up the treatlike aspect of eating out may be particularly helpful for consumers.
These findings can inform current US Food and Drug Administration campaign efforts to support consumer use of calorie labels on menus.