Unless your kid is named Hansel, he probably doesn’t need to be fattened up like a juicy Christmas goose every time you go out to eat. That’s not what some of the biggest restaurants think, though: Chili’s has a kids’ meal that comes in at 1,020 calories, while Burger King and KFC both offer meals that are over 900 calories. Your healthiest option, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is Subway. Here are what some other restaurants are offering, as well as tips on how to make the best of a bad meal when your kid is eating out.
For children between 4 and 8 years of age, the recommended amount of calories per meal, assuming three meals a day, is 430. If the child is active, the amount goes up to 565. Using these numbers as a guide, the CSPI looked at the biggest restaurant chains in the country, then whittled their list down to the ones that offer dedicated kids’ menus and provide nutritional info. This meant the following were left out of the study because they won’t provide nutritional info:
- We don’t need no stinkin’ nutrition
- T.G.I. Friday’s
- Outback Steakhouse
- Olive Garden
- Red Lobster
Here’s what the CSPI has to say about those restaurants that do provide nutritional info:
Chili’s has 700 possible kids’ meal combinations, but 658, or 94 percent, of those are too high in calories, including one comprised of country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples, and chocolate milk (1,020 calories) and another comprised of cheese pizza, homestyle fries, and lemonade (1,000 calories).
Burger King has a “Big Kids” meal with a double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk (910 calories)
Sonic has a “Wacky Pack” with 830 calories worth of grilled cheese, fries, and a slushie.
KFC has a wide variety of side items, but there are few meal combinations that keep a reasonable ceiling on calories, according to the study. One example of a high-cal combo KFC kid’s meal (the chain calls them “Laptop Meals”) has popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, Teddy Grahams, and fruit punch, which has 940 calories. (KFC has since dropped Baked Cheetos from its kids’ meals, and some outlets vary the number of chicken strips or sides.)
Most of the kids’meals (93 percent) at McDonald’s and Wendy’s are too high in calories, as are the possibilities at Burger King (92 percent), Dairy Queen (89 percent), Arby’s (69 percent), and Denny’s (60 percent-though its kids’ meals don’t include drinks). (Since CSPI’s study was completed, Burger King has introduced one new children’s meal with macaroni and cheese, apple “fries,” and 1 percent milk, which has a reasonable 420 calories.)
Subway’s kids’ meals came out on top. Only a third of its Fresh Fit for Kids meals, which include a mini-sub, juice box, and one of several healthful side items (apple slices, raisins, or yogurt), exceed the 430-calorie threshold. Subway is the only chain that doesn’t offer soft drinks with kids’ meals.
So how do you improve the nutrition of your kid’s meal the next time you eat at a restaurant? A spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association gave the following advice:
“Don’t be too alarmed even when [studies] come out and seem hopeless,” said Dawn Jackson Blatner, an American Dietetic Ass>ociation spokeswoman. “With a few swaps and switches, people really can make healthier choices at these fast-food joints, especially when the decisions are made before going in.
“Many of these restaurants have the nutrition information online that you can print out and go over with your kids even before you go, so that everybody is on the same page before they pull up to the drive-through or [head] to the counter,” Blatner said.
She also suggested that “instead of getting the fries, go with the apple slices. Many [restaurants] offer carrot sticks or apple slices or no-sugar-added applesauce or oranges, which make a big difference over deep-fried fries.”
And pay attention to how food is cooked. “Instead of the deep-fried nuggets, go for something like the grilled chicken, and you will save fat grams and calories,” Blatner said. You’ll also save calories by switching the soda, she added: “You can’t go wrong with unsweetened iced tea, water or a skim milk.”
As for the restaurants that refuse to provide nutritional info, maybe you should just eat elsewhere.
Click here for some specific replacement suggestions from the Chicago Tribune.