If your crazy schedule means you eat out with your kids at fast food or chain restaurants more often than you might like, here’s some semi-good news: Most children’s meal combos now meet nutritional standards for calories and fat as set forth in national dietary guidelines. But there’s plenty of room for improvement and, without calorie counts on the menu, finding a healthy meal combo is still a bit of a crapshoot, according to new research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Education Behavior.
The researchers tracked down nutritional information for every child’s meal combination at the 10 biggest fast-food restaurants (including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s) and the 10 biggest full-service chain restaurants (Applebee’s, Chili’s, TGI Fridays, and the like) that offered children’s menus. This was the first study to analyze full meal combinations rather than individual food items to get a better fix on what kids actually consume.
Overall, 72 percent of the fast-food meals and 63 percent of the sit-down meals rang in at under 600 calories, the maximum amount most moderately active children age 9 to 13 should get in one meal. (Government guidelines call for daily intake of 1,800 to 2,200 calories for boys in that age group and 1,600 to 2,000 calories for girls, with no more than one-third of daily calories coming from a single meal.) And 72 percent of fast-food meals got less than one-tenth of their calories from saturated fat, as guidelines recommend, though the figure at sit-down restaurants was less impressive—about 40 percent.
On the downside, fewer than half of kids’ meals at either type of restaurant met the recommended cut-off for sodium (no more than 770 milligrams per meal for kids 9 to 13). And only 32 percent of fast-food meals and 22 percent of sit-down meals met criteria for calories, fat, and sodium combined.
“Overall, these results highlight the feasibility of offering healthier children's meals in restaurants,” the authors wrote, though they cited “room for further improvement in overall nutritional quality in the average children's meal.”
Bottom line: If you take your kids or grandkids to restaurants with children’s meals, look for those with healthier options, such as fruit or vegetable sides (or ask to substitute fruits or vegetables for less healthy sides). Limit or avoid heavy sauces or toppings. Choose a meal with no dessert if possible, unless it’s an apple or the equivalent; the study found that meals that didn’t include dessert were more likely to meet recommended calorie cut-offs. And always discourage kids from ordering sugary soft drinks with their meal. Water or milk are better choices.