Healthy Fast Food for Kids a Tall Order?

Watchdog Group Finds Most Kids' Fast Food Meals Are Unhealthy, but Industry Contends Healthy Choices Exist

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 04, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 4, 2008 -- Most kids' fast food meals are unhealthy, loaded with too many calories and too much fat and sodium, according to a report issued today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"You can hunt around and you will find a few [kids'] meals that are nutritionally pretty good," says Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the CSPI, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "But the vast majority of meals are too high in calories, saturated fat, or sodium. They are all made with refined white flour rather than whole wheat flour -- not the kind of meals we ought to be encouraging people to eat."

But spokespeople from the restaurant industry disagree, saying that menus have improved nutritionally in recent years, giving diners a choice of healthier options.

Kids' Fast Food Meals: Report Detail

CSPI's researchers, led by Margo G. Wootan, the center's nutrition policy director, assessed the nutrition of children's meals from 13 different restaurant chains.

They looked at all the possible children's meal combinations -- all the ways that an entree, side item, and beverage could be combined -- and came up with 1,474 possible choices at the 13 chains.

Then they compared the options with a set of nutritional standards. The meal should not have more than one-third of the daily requirement for the average child aged 4-8, or not more than 430 calories. Fat should not be more than 35% of calories, with saturated and trans fat no more than 10% of calories. They looked at added sugars and sodium, with cutoffs for each.

Kids' Fast Food Meals: The Hall of Shame

Ninety-three percent of the 1,474 options had more than 430 calories, they found. Forty-five percent of the options were too high in saturated and trans fat, and 86% were too high in sodium.

Five meal choices earned CSPI's "Hall of Shame" award. On that list:

  • Chili's country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples, and chocolate milk, with 1,020 calories
  • Chili's cheese pizza, homestyle fries, and lemonade, with 1,000 calories
  • KFC's popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, fruit punch, and Teddy Grahams, with 940 calories
  • Burger King's double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk, with 910 calories
  • Sonic's grilled cheese, fries, and slushie, with 830 calories

Kids' Fast Food Meals: Healthier Choices

Some meals did meet the CSPI's nutritional criteria. Among the options:

  • Subway's ham mini sub with juice box and apple slices or raisins; roast beef mini sub and juice box with any side, including apple slices or raisins or yogurt; turkey mini sub and juice box with apples slices or raisins or yogurt
  • Chili's grilled chicken sandwich with apple juice and corn kernels (or mandarin oranges or pineapple)
  • Denny's pancakes without meat, with maple syrup; macaroni and cheese, and grapes
  • Arby's popcorn chicken or junior roast beef sandwich with fruit cup and fruit juice

Kids' Fast Food Meals: Industry Responds

Spokespeople from the fast food industry say they do offer healthful options for young diners and are trying to improve the offerings even more.

"KFC is proud to offer a variety of Kids Meals for those looking for lower-calorie, lower-fat options," Rick Maynard, a company spokesman, says in an email interview. He says that some kids' meals at KFC do offer less than 430 calories, such as a meal of two crispy strips, green beans, Teddy Grahams, and a diet drink, which totals 380 calories.

In a statement, Heather Krasnow, a spokeswoman for Burger King, says they offer nutritionally healthy choices, such as the kids' meal launched this summer -- macaroni and cheese, fresh apple fries, and Hershey's 1% low fat milk. It totals 315 calories, according to the nutrition guide on the company web site.

The trend among restaurants is to offer consumers more choices and nutritional information, says Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. "A 2007 consumer survey [conducted by the association] showed that four out of five customers said there were more healthy options available and more food choices available than there were two years earlier."

Kids' Fast Food Meals: Expert Advice

Besides checking out the nutrition facts of fast food restaurants, what can parents do?

"Look for grilled or baked items, such as grilled chicken or grilled lean burgers, and avoid fried foods," says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Choose low-fat or skim milk, or 100% fruit juice, over other beverages that simply provide calories without nutritional value.

"Milk and juices typically come in small portions appropriate for children," she tells WebMD. "However, sodas and shakes made for kids are often more than enough for an adult."

Kids' Fast Food Meals: CSPI's Bottom Line

The solution, says Jacobson, is an overhaul of existing menu items to reduce overall calories, fat, and sodium and to increase options such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Another recommendation, he says, is to make fruit or vegetables and low-fat milk or water the default side dishes instead of french fries and soda for the kids' meals. Disney does this in its theme parks, Jacobson tells WebMD, and it has been successful, with more than 70% of parents choosing the healthier options when those are the default offering.

Restaurants should routinely post nutrition information on menus and menu boards, as is required by policies passed in New York City, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and elsewhere, he says.

Show Sources


Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C.

Center for Science in the Public Interest report: "Kids' Meals: Obesity on the Menu," August 2008.

Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; national spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Heather Krasnow, spokeswoman, Burger King, Miami.

Rick Maynard, spokesman, KFC, Louisville, Ky.

Mike Donohue, spokesman, National Restaurant Association, Washington, D.C.

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