The 5 worst kid meals at chain restaurants

Kids’ meals at restaurant chains are just as bad as ever, according to an analysis by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, and more than 90 percent don’t even meet the nutritional standards set by a restaurant industry group.

The nutrition activist group evaluated 3,500 children’s meals on websites posted by fast-food and large restaurant chains and found—not surprisingly—that fried chicken nuggets, hamburgers, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and sugar-filled drinks remain the most popular offerings, with 97 percent not meeting CSPI’s nutrition criteria for 4- to 8-year-olds; 91 percent didn’t meet the National Restaurant Association’s less stringent nutritional requirements contained in its Kids LiveWell initiative.

Some fast-food chains’ efforts to revamp their kiddie meals have had only minimal impact on their nutritional content. McDonald’s Happy Meals, for example, used to contain 590 calories and 20 grams of fat, while the new versions contain 450 calories and 16 grams of fat. The sodium count hasn’t budged from slightly over 700 milligrams.

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To meet CSPI’s nutrition criteria, kids’ meals must not exceed 430 calories, contain more than 35 percent of calories from fat, or more than 10 percent of calories from saturated or trans fat. They also can’t contain a lot of added sugar and must contain fewer than 770 milligrams of sodium. At least half a serving of a fruit or vegetable must be part of the meal, and it needs to contain a certain amount of whole grains and fiber. The Restaurant Association has similar requirements but allows meals to contain up to 600 calories.

Among the worst offenders found by CSPI on the kids’ menu?

* Applebee’s Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries and 2 Percent Chocolate Milk. It contains 1,210 calories with 62 grams of total fat, 21 grams of saturated fat, and 2,340 milligrams of sodium.

* Chili’s Pepperoni Pizza with Homestyle Fries and Soda. It has 1,010 calories, 45 grams of total fat, 18 grams of saturated fat, and 2,020 mg. of sodium.

* Denny’s Jr. Cheeseburger and French Fries. It has 980 calories, 55 grams of total fat, 20 grams of saturated fat, 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. It has 860 calories, 46 grams of total fat, and 1,730 mg. of sodium. (Ruby Tuesday didn’t post the amounts of different kinds of fats on its website.)

* Dairy Queen’s Chicken Strips, Kids’ Fries, Sauce, Arctic Rush (a Slushee-type frozen drink) and Dilly Bar. It has 1,030 calories, 45 grams of total fat, 15 grams of saturated fat, and 1,730 mg. of sodium.

The National Restaurant Association responded to the nutrition group’s report by saying that the industry has a “positive story to tell” regarding its success with its 18-month-old Kids LiveWell program. “Participating restaurants offer and promote healthful meals for children that focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while limiting unhealthful fats, sugars and sodium,” according to a statement from the group.

I checked out the healthy dining finder on the Kids LiveWell program’s website and found it to be a user-friendly tool that parents can use to search participating restaurant chains for specific meals to order; it provides nutritional content for healthful meals.

Burger King’s kid’s hamburger with fresh apple slices and fat-free milk contains 380 calories and 10 grams of total fat, which isn’t bad for a hamburger meal. Arby’s, Jr. turkey and cheese sandwich meal with apple slices and fat-free milk has 340 calories and 8 grams of total fat. Boston Market’s turkey and rotisserie chicken options for kids all weighed in at less than 300 calories.

Bottom line for parents: Don’t be fooled into thinking that lighter kids’ fare promoted by chain restaurants really is substantially more nutritious. Check out the Kids LiveWell or individual chain’s website beforehand and plan accordingly.

Also, be aware that calorie counts may not always be accurate; a 2011 study from Tufts University found that posted calorie counts in nearly 20 percent of fast-food chains and restaurants are 100 calories or more above what’s actually stated on the menu due to variations in portion sizes and preparation techniques. Earlier this week, Consumer Reports found that a minority of restaurants had varying calories and fat compared to what was stated on the menu, but that sometimes they had fewer calories than what was stated.

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