elisa-zied

'Healthy Happy Meal' doesn't have to be an oxymoron

March 9, 2012 at 8:36 AM ET

Kristian Dowling / Getty Images
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: Children eat a new Happy Meal at the McDonald's restaurant in Collingwood on August 29, 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. The new Happy Meal is a low fat alternative to the fast food chain's traditional Happy Meal. Childhood obesity is a major health issue in Australia and has tripled in the last 20 years with one in six Australian children classed as obese. (Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)

Are you a terrible parent if you grab a quick bite for the kids at Burger King or McDonald's? San Francisco's "ban" on Happy Meals seems to imply as much.

But on busy nights when there's no time to cook, it can be easy to forget that the nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Can a fast food kids' meal ever be healthy? 

If you talk to parents, they’ll tell you there’s a place in the healthy diet for fast food. But like everything, it’s all about moderation.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty if you sometimes have to grab whatever’s available,” says Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian, author, msnbc.com contributor -- and mother of two. “We have crazy weekends -- between the basketball games, the Bar Mitzvahs and other activities – when we’re eating a little less healthful than we normally do.”

The trick, Zied says, is to achieve a balance through the rest of the meals your kids are eating -- and monitor portion sizes. If you’re going to hit a McDonald’s, for example, have your kid get the smallest burger and maybe even a small fries. Pizza is fine, too, if your kid is limited to a slice or two and then fills up with salad or fruit or something equally healthy, says the 42-year-old New York mom.

Zied also sees these forays into fast food as learning experiences for her sons, a chance to teach them how to order healthy meals outside the home.

That makes a lot of sense to Sharon Strohm, manager of clinical nutrition and diabetes education at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg. “They have to be able to deal with real food situations,” she says. “They should learn to deal with restaurant meals where good choices may not be available. And ultimately nothing is off the table. It’s all about the portions.”

With a busy schedule, Strohm says her family ends up eating out a lot. She tries to nudge the kids in the direction of the healthiest choices, and to balance out what they consume at the restaurant with what they eat at home. 

“My kids have had Happy Meals,” Strohm says. “As a parent, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.”

And those Happy Meals have recently gotten healthier. Like other fast food restaurants, McDonald’s has tried to come up with a healthier version of its popular kids’ meal. The new Happy Meal includes sliced apples for dessert and a smaller serving of fries, as well as low fat milk or juice instead of a soft drink. The fast food chain just launched a new ad campaign pushing the lighter kids meals. And while a fast food meal is never exactly optimal, it can be a viable, economical option for busy families in a pinch. 

"A working mom can get a burger at McDonald's less expensively than the real products to make it at home," Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor, said Thursday morning on TODAY. "McDonald's, if they move to milk and apple slices instead of coke and french fries and a burger to fill a child up, I have no problem with it."

Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Slusser of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA suggests parents choose restaurants that offer healthy, low-cal choices -- such as Subway with its 230-calorie Veggie Delite sandwich or Burger King with its 340-calorie Veggie Burger (without the mayo) or Taco Bell with its 170-calorie Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco.

“You want to practice what you do at home,” Slusser says. “So pick items that are steamed, roasted, or poached instead of deep fried.

If you can’t order smaller portions, try sharing with your child, Slusser suggests. “Or take part of it home with you,” she adds.

Slusser underscores the importance of choosing healthy beverages -- either water or milk -- with the meal.

In the end, Zied says, you need to remember, “Food is not the devil.”

How often do you eat fast food? When you do swing through a drive-thru, do you try to stick to the restaurant's healthier options? Share your thoughts and experiences on Facebook.

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