Most restaurant kids’ meals packed with calories

By Nancy Hellmich

Most kids’ meals at top chain restaurants in the United States are still failing to make the grade when it comes to good nutrition, a new analysis finds.

Fried chicken fingers and nuggets, fries, and soda are the most common items offered to children, and some kids meals contain more than 1,000 calories and are high in sodium and fat, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The government’s dietary guidelines recommend that children ages 4 to 10 eat 1,200 to 2,200 calories for the entire day.

“This is really disappointing,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for CSPI. “Restaurants should be doing better.”

The findings come after many restaurants have made some strides in offering healthier fare on kids’ menus, including serving more fruit, vegetables, and fat-free and low-fat milk.

CSPI worked with a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina at Asheville to analyze 3,498 kids meal combinations from 41 top chain restaurants; 34 chains provided nutrition information for those meals.

The findings show:

  • Ninety-one percent of kids’ meals at those chains do not meet the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell menu standards, a voluntary initiative. It recommends healthy kids’ meals have 600 calories or less, get 35 percent or less of their calories from total fat and total sugar, have no more than 770 milligrams sodium, and also meet other nutrition criteria. The standards emphasize lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain and low-fat dairy products.
  • Nine of the top chain restaurants, including McDonald’s, do not have a single kids meal that meets the Kids LiveWell standards.
  • Fifty percent of the kids’ meals had more than 600 calories.
  • Seventy-eight percent of the chains offer soft drinks as a children’s beverage option; 58 percent offer fruit juices; 40 percent offer fat-free or 1 percent low-fat milk; 43 percent offer high-fat milk (2 percent or whole).
  • Eighty-three percent serve fried chicken entrees for kids’ meals, such as chicken fingers or nuggets; 35 percent serve grilled chicken; 65 percent serve hamburgers.
  • Seventy-three percent of kids’ menus offer fried potatoes such as french fries and potato chips; 53 percent offer veggies other than fried potatoes with children’s meals; 68 percent offer fruit. The most common choices: apple slices, applesauce, fruit cups, mandarin oranges, and grapes.

There hasn’t been much improvement since the consumer group did a similar study in 2008, Wootan says.

Still, some restaurants are making strides. For instance, all of Subway’s children’s meals, which include apple slices and water, apple juice or 1 percent low-fat milk, meet nutrition standards for calories, sodium and fat, Wootan says.

Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association, says the industry has been rapidly expanding its offering of healthy meals through the Kids LiveWell program. “It launched in 2011 with 19 brands, including both chain restaurants and mom-and-pop operations. We now have 130 brands representing 40,000 restaurant locations,” she says.

“We’re providing healthful items on the menu, and we encourage parents and the child to order the options that fit into an overall healthy diet.”

Anita Jones-Mueller, founder of the company Healthy Dining (, which works with the restaurant association on the Kids LiveWell program, says, “as a parent, it’s sometimes hard to get kids to eat healthy, but Kids LiveWell options make it easier.”

“It’s exciting to see so many restaurants creating healthier choices because it helps parents feel good about eating out, knowing that their children have nutritious options,” she says.

Wootan says children are getting about 25 percent of their daily calories from fast-food places and other restaurants, and consumption of restaurant food is associated with higher calorie intake and poorer diet quality.

“Restaurant children’s meals are one of the reasons that kids think their food should be chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers with a side of fries and a soda,” she says. “It defines what they think of as kids’ food, and most of these meals are the opposite of what they should be learning to eat. These meals set them up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.

“We need to get to the point that kids’ meals are the most nutritious foods on the menu, because kids are growing and developing and forming eating habits that are going to affect their health and weight for the rest of their lives,” she says.

Currently, about a third of children and teens are overweight or obese, which puts kids at greater risk of developing a host of debilitating and costly diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol…

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