Eating healthy while on the go can be tricky these days. As Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in Boston with 3 children of her own, remarks, “Kids’ meals can be outrageously high in calories, fat and sodium, but it’s possible to go into just about any restaurant and cobble together a healthy meal for a child.” (Helmich, 8-5-2008)

Of course, parents needn’t be too obsessive about it. One meal does not make an obesity problem, and it’s perfectly fine to let kids splurge and eat junk on occasion. But if your family eats out regularly, you should at least have some idea of exactly what’s in the meals your children are eating. Considering the average child has 167 restaurant meals in a year (ibid), this can be a significant aspect of your child’s nutrition equation.

A 2008 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that some meals contain more than 1,000 calories – almost as many as what some elementary-school children need for the entire day. What follows are some of the results from that study. Keep in mind that calorie count can vary from one circumstance to another, and restaurants are constantly updating and changing their menus. Calorie counts at restaurants are also never an exact science, as one person may throw more or less of something into a particular dish than another. Even tenderized fast food can vary greatly depending on things like how well a person strains the French fries or how many French fries they pack into a pouch. This information is meant to give you more of a general idea about the type of calories that can be found across different kids’ meals as a whole.

Calories in fast food kids’ meals

Many nutritional guidelines recommend that elementary-aged kids get no more than 430 calories in any given meal. This is because with 3 meals a day plus snacks, meals in excess of this amount can easily put them above the recommended daily caloric intake. Yet most kids meals at fast food chains exceed this guideline:

1. McDonald’s: 93% of kid meal choices exceed 430 calories

2. Wendy’s”: 93% also exceed 430 calories

3. Burger King: 92% exceed 430 calories

4. Dairy Queen: 89% exceed 430 calories

5. Arby’s: 69% exceed 430 calories

6. Denny’s: 60% exceed 430 calories

A small cheeseburger at Burger King contains 330 calories and 380 milligrams of sodium. A small fries is 230 calories and 380 milligrams of sodium. A small soft drink adds 140, for a total of 700 calories. “And fat?” asks Dr. Alan Greene. “An eight-year-old girl shouldn’t have more than 300 calories of fat in a day. The cheeseburger has 144, the small fries 208, totaling 352. The small shake would add another 384, bringing the total calories from fat to over 700.” (Greene, 2009, p. 247)

Worst kids’ meal choices
Not all kids’ meals are created equal, and some are worse than others.  Here were some of the worst offenders:

1. Chili’s country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk, which totaled a whopping ~Q 1,020 calories.

2. KFC’s popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, teddy grahams and fruit punch, which rang in at 940 calories.

3. Sonic’s ‘Wacky Pack’ containing grilled cheese, fries and a slushy, at 830 calories.

In the face of such findings, many parents panic, taking things to the extreme of avoiding fast food altogether. Don’t do this. It won’t hurt your kid to indulge in some junk food every now and then, and depriving them entirely usually leads to overcompensation once they grow older, which can be just as unhealthy. The real problem comes when kids are eating such food regularly, perhaps on a daily basis. When this happens, you can see how quickly a child’s calorie count and nutritional intake can get out of hand.

Healthiest Kids’ meal choices
A 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found the healthiest kids’ meals it studied were:

1. Chili’s grilled chicken sandwich, apple, juice, mandarin oranges: 338 calories.

2. Denny’s pancakes and maple syrup (without meat): 373 calories.

3. Denny’s macaroni and cheese with grapes: 413 calories.

4. Subway’s roast beef or turkey sub with #* juice box and yogurt: 400 calories.

5. Subway’s ham mini-sub, 1% milk box, apple slices: 405 calories.

6. Arbies popcorn chicken on junior roast beef sandwich, fruit cup, fruit juice: 422 calories.

Going beyond the kids meal

When visiting more traditional restaurants, you also shouldn’t feel compelled to order for your kids from the kids’ menu, which at every restaurant involves the same bland choices: Hot dog, pizza slice, grilled cheese, Mac and Cheese, and so on. Going out to eat should be a culinary experience – a chance to taste different tastes from around the world. You WANT your kids to get experience with a variety of foods when they are little in order to expand their palate.

One of the best ways to encourage this is to avoid getting kids hooked on the kids’ menu items to begin with. When they’re toddlers, you don’t need to order a separate meal at all: just ask for an extra plate and feed them acceptable items from your own plate. As they grow into preschoolers, encourage them to order from the whole menu, even if it means you have extra food to take home in a doggy bag. If they do order from the kids’ menu, encourage them to sample some tastes from your own plate. The kids’ menu may seem cheap and convenient, but it’s just another cog in the machine that is pushing kids toward bland, unhealthy, highly processed foods.