Nearly all the meal possibilities offered to kids at America's top chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
In a recent report, the group found that fried chicken fingers, burgers, French fries, and sugar drinks continue to dominate the kids' meal landscape, with 97 percent of the nearly 3,500 meal possibilities not meeting CSPI's nutrition criteria for children aged four to eight.
And if you don't believe CSPI, ask the National Restaurant Association: 91 percent of kids' meals at America's major chains do not even meet the nutritional standards of the industry lobbying group's Kids LiveWell program.
One chain that has gotten the memo is Subway, according to the report. All eight of Subway restaurants' Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI's nutrition criteria. Subway is the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugar drinks as an option with its kids' meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water along with apple slices with all of its kid-sized subs.
To meet CSPI's nutrition criteria, kids' meals must not exceed 430 calories, more than 35 percent of calories from fat, or more than 10 percent of calories from saturated plus trans fat. Meals that meet CSPI's criteria cannot have more than 35 percent added sugars by weight or more than 770 milligrams of sodium.
The criteria require meals to make a positive nutritional contribution either by providing at least half a serving of fruit or vegetable, including an item that is 51 percent or more whole grain, or including specified levels of vitamins or fiber. CSPI's criteria exclude sugar drinks in favor of water, juice, or low-fat milk. The NRA's standards are quite similar, though they allow more calories.
Some of the least healthy kids' meals available at chain restaurants include:
- Applebee's Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries and 2 Percent Chocolate Milk has 1,210 calories with 62 grams of total fat (46 percent of calories), 21 grams of saturated fat (16 percent), and 2,340 milligrams of sodium. That meal has nearly three times as many calories, and three times as much sodium, as CSPI's criteria for four-to eight-year-olds allow.
- Chili's Pepperoni Pizza with Homestyle Fries and Soda has 1,010 calories, 45 grams of total fat (40 percent of calories), 18 grams of saturated fat (16 percent of calories, and about as much saturated fat as an adult should consume in an entire day), and 2,020 milligrams of sodium.
- Denny's Jr. Cheeseburger and French Fries has 980 calories, 55 grams of total fat (50 percent of calories), 20 grams of saturated fat (18 percent) and 1,110 mg of sodium. Denny's does not include beverages with kids' meals.
- Ruby Tuesday's Mac 'n Cheese, White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes, and Fruit Punch has 860 calories, 46 grams of total fat (48 percent of calories) and 1,730 mg of sodium. Ruby Tuesday's does not disclose saturated or trans fat content on its menus or website.
- Dairy Queen's Chicken Strips, Kids' Fries, Sauce, Arctic Rush (a Slushee-type frozen drink) and Dilly Bar has 1,030 calories, 45 grams of total fat (39 percent of calories), 15 grams of saturated fat (13 percent of calories), and 1,730 mg of sodium.