Fast Food Flops for Tots: Too Many Calories in Kid’s Meals, Study Says

Kids’ Meals are too high in calories, fat, and sodium, study says

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

You probably knew it wasn’t the healthiest option on the block. But when you go into a fast-food restaurant (can we really call them that?), you’re getting a lot more than you bargained for when you order a kid’s meal for little Johnny and Josephine. Way more.

Only one or 2 restaurants coming to mind as the culprits? You’d be surprised…or perhaps the word is…disgusted. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Science and Public Interest suggests that 90% of children’s “kid’s meals” at 13 major fast-food and restaurant chains are too high—way too high—in calories for our little tykes.

Here’s the scoop:

Who did the study? Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit organization.

What were they looking for? The report aimed to investigate the nutritional quality in 13 major restaurant chains.

What did they find?

  • 90% of 13 restaurant chains were too high in calories for our children. The recommended number of calories per meal for children between the ages of 4 and 8 (the majority of kid’s meal eaters) is 430.
  • Half of the children’s meals exceeded the National Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for saturated and trans fat. These fats can raise cholesterol levels in the children (an issue that’s been given a lot of attention lately) and increase heart disease.
  • 86% of kid’s meals are too high in sodium. Again, this is startling because, according to CSPI and recent studies, a quarter of children between the ages of 5 and 10 show early signs of heart disease, such as high LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) or elevated blood pressure.
  • Eating out now accounts for 1/3 of children’s DAILY caloric intake—twice the amount consumed away from home only 30 years ago.

In a nut shell… Many kids’ meal combos are too high in calories, fat, and sodium: CSPI found that nearly every possible combination of children’s meals at popular stops such as Chick-fil-A, Sonic, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and KFC are too high in calories. 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).

Give me some examples, Dr. Robyn:

  • Chili’s Bar and Grill: This popular chain has 700 possible combinations of kids’ meals. Out of those 700, 658 (94%) are too high in calories for the children they aim to serve. One such meal combo, consisting of “country fried chicken crispers,” cinnamon apples and chocolate milk might look harmless but packs a whopping 1020 calories (nearly 2 ½ times the number of calories a child should eat at any one meal)! Another Chili’s combo, made up of cheese pizza, homestyle fries, and lemonade contained 1,000 calories (over 2 times the recommended amount).
  • Burger King: The “Big Kid’s Meal” (How big? An adult?), comprised of a double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk came out to 910 calories. (Since CSPI’s study was completed, Burger King has introduced a calorie-friendly kid’s meal with macaroni and cheese, apple “fries,” and 1 percent milk at 420 calories).
  • Sonic: This chain’s “Wacky Pack” make up of a grilled cheese sandwich, fries, and a slushie (definitely NOT nutritious) packed almost double the recommended number of calories at 830.

Christi Woodworth, a spokeswoman for Sonic, said the chain is looking into adding a variety of healthy side items, and plans to introduce string cheese at 90 calories each in September.

Did anyone come out fairing well? Subway came out on top for it’s kid’s meal combinations. Only 1/3 of their 18 “Fresh Fit for Kids” Meals exceeded the 430 calorie recommendation. These meals consist of a mini-sub, juice box, and one side item like apple slices, raisins, or yogurt, much healthier options than “would you like fries with that?”

The Blame Game:

  • The restaurants say…“exercising parental responsibility is key to childhood nutrition.” [The report] “fails to acknowledge the essential role of nutrition education, physical activity and parental responsibility in childhood nutrition — good eating habits and healthy living must be established in the home.” — The National Restaurant Association, a business group of about 945,000 restaurants and food outlets. They voiced that the said trend in the industry is to provide “more detailed nutritional information and choice in menu options for consumers.”
  • Center for Science and Public Interest says: “Parents want to feed their children healthy meals, but America’s chain restaurants are setting parents up to fail. McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and other chains are conditioning kids to expect burgers, fried chicken, pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and soda in various combination at almost every lunch and dinner. — CSPI nutrition policy director, Margo G. Wootan, said in a statement.
  • KFC says… [we’re] “proud to offer a variety of kids meals for those looking for lower calorie, lower fat options.” The statement noted that the report’s calculations include baked Cheetos and a biscuit, sides that are no longer offered.
  • Jack in the Box says…that parents do indeed have several healthy options that can select for their children including applesauce and reduced fat milk.

Interesting Fun (Frustrating?) Fact: You may have noticed that six leading restaurant chains — Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, TGIFriday’s, Outback Steakhouse, and IHOP (International House of Pancakes) — weren’t included in the report. Why not? They don’t disclose nutritional information about their meals, kid’s or otherwise, even when asked, according to CSPI.

CSPI recommends that restaurants…

(1) Revise their menus: How about including options that are lower in calories, trans fat, and salt? CSPI asks that they add more healthy items like fruit, veggies, and whole grains.

(2) Shake up the default: Instead of fries being the “default” items for side dishes, make fruit, veggies take their place. Instead of making “soda” the default drink, replacing it with water and low-fat milk.

(3) Nutrition info front and center: Provide nutrition information on menus and menu boards like New York and San Francisco have already done.

There’s no doubt. It’s certainly frustrating for people to call this stuff “kid’s meals” when they are fit for children. So many fast food and convenient items are just as they say they are—fast and convenient but not often healthy. For the health of our children, if they’re not going to make the change, we have to do it for them.

What are your thoughts on the issue? We’d love to hear from you.

10 Responses

  1. Excellent article Dr. Robyn. You are spot on. Fast food and even sit down family restaruants are a dilema. Parents need to educate themselves on what is healthy and monitor how often they go out.

    My suggestions:
    1. Don’t order “meals” – buy ala cart
    2. Don’t buy drinks – empty calories from sugar with no redeeming nutritional value at all – drink more water
    3. Don’t order fries – delicious? Yes. healthy? Absolutely not. Probably the worst food available.

    Save soda, fries and other really bad foods as treats to allow on special occasions.

  2. Thanks, Dr. M– It is certainly a frustration that this food that many families are relying on as fast and convenient is far from healthy. Parents rely on these restaurants to provide foods that are right for their children– after all, if you call them “kids’ meals” they should be fit for kids, right?

    We appreciate your advice. Come back soon!

    Dr. Robyn

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