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Consumer group uncovers unhealthy kids' meals at major restaurant chains

Most chain restaurants offer ice cream and other fattening desserts for kids.
Most chain restaurants offer ice cream and other fattening desserts for kids.

Concerned parents will be interested in a report released yesterday that targets meals designed for kids that are full of everything except nutrition. Some of the meals served up by chain restaurants contain up to 1,000 calories that approaches the lower recommended total daily calorie intake of 1,200 calories recommended by the government.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), along with the University of North Carolina at Asheville, worked to analyze 3,498 kids' meal combinations from 41 top chain restaurants.

Among the restaurants, 34 chains provided nutrition information. The results show there has not been much change since the group conducted their survey in 2008. Children’s meals at 91 percent of the restaurants surveyed are still laden with calories, sodium, fat and little nutrition.

In their report titled “Obesity on the Menu” the researchers said children consume approximately 25 percent of their calories at fast-food and other restaurants. Because dining out is so rampant, the nutritional quality of meals is important.

The study found the percentage of meals decreased in fat since 2008, but most are higher in sodium and calories.

The investigation pitted the nutritional quality of kids’ meals in restaurants against the NRA's Kids LiveWell standards that recommend no more than 600 calories or less, including beverages per meal for children.

Less than 35 percent of calories should come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Recommended sodium content per meal should be less than 770mg.

Two sources of fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grains and lower fat dairy should be included in each meal.

The CPSI study evaluated entree, side items and beverages from each restaurant’s children’s menu, taken from their website or from the in-restaurant menu.

Eighteen percent of 50 restaurants studied had no dedicated children’s meals that included Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin' Donuts, 7-Eleven, Papa John's, Golden Corral, Church’s Chicken, Little Caesars Pizza, HomeTown Buffet/Old Country Buffet, and Starbucks.

Cracker Barrel, Old Country Store and Restaurant, Hooters, Waffle House, the Cheesecake Factory, and Texas Roadhouse did not disclose nutritional information for their meals.

Key findings from the 41 restaurants:

  • 83 percent offered fried chicken entrees to kids
  • 65 percent served up burgers
  • 45 percent had macaroni and cheese or other cheesy pasta dishes.
  • Just 35 percent offered one of the healthier options of grilled chicken.
  • Few of the meals included whole grains or vegetables
  • 20 percent of chains offered breakfast for children

Calorie content ranged from 80 in P.F. Chang’s “Baby’s Buddha Feast” to 800 found in “Beef Minis” at Ruby Tuesday’s

Just 53 percent had vegetable side items for kids like steamed or fresh broccoli, carrots, celery, salad, corn or green beans. In contrast, 73 percent offered potato chips, fried potatoes or French fries.

CPSI found some fruits on children’s menus, as a side item, including applesauce or apple slices, fruit cups, mandarin oranges, and grapes. A handful of restaurants listed watermelon, bananas, and pineapple.

Beverage offerings varied - 78 percent of kids’ meals included soft drinks and 48 percent high fat dairy. More than half had fruit juice on children’s menus and 40 percent non-fat or low-fat milk.

Desserts included ice cream, cookies and shakes specifically for children.

Sixty-six percent exceed recommended salt content. Eight-six percent have more than 430 calories, which is recommended by experts. Half of kids' meals contained more than 600 calories recommended by the “Kids LiveWell" standard.

Is there a ‘best’ restaurant to take your child?

You can ensure your child gets a healthy meal, but it's important to pick the healthier options available. If there is no low-fat dairy or fruit options or you have to pay extra for vegetables or fruits, pick another dining option. Forty-four percent of the restaurants had healthy food for kids to choose from.

Subway topped the list for all of their children’s meals. Burger King has an oatmeal breakfast that can help your child boost intake of grains. Olive Garden offers whole wheat pasta and P.F. Chang’s and Chipotle offer brown rice, all of which can help your child meet “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” recommendations for good health.

Other recommendations

The CPSI would like to see more restaurants participate in the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program.

They recommend restaurants reformulate kids’ meals, get rid of sugary drinks, offer more fruits and vegetables and not charge extra, but include the options with meals.

More whole grains are needed, the group also says.

The consumer group would also like to see the food industry promote healthy meals to kids rather than bombarding them with ads for junk food. You can read the full investigation here, along with other recommendations and findings from the report.


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