One of the biggest flaws in America’s restaurants concerns the smallest people at the table. Somehow we feel as though kids should get a nutritional free pass, when in fact we should focus on instilling in them the best eating habits possible.
The average kid has Michael Phelps’ metabolism, so weight gain shouldn’t be a problem. But with the massive portions coming out of America’s chain restaurants, it is. More than one in three children are overweight or obese—that’s more than three times as many overweight children as we had 30 years ago. (The obesity rate is just over one in six children—that’s 12.5 million obese children in America.) And studies show that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults, so it’s important to start improving eating habits early.
It’s clear we need to address the problem, and by making smart swaps at our favorite restaurants, we can do just that. The four swaps here save your child an average 790 calories at each meal. If you can help your child cut just half that many calories every day, he or she stands to drop 40 over the course of a year.
On the Border
Kid’s Cheese Quesadilla with Mexican Rice
75 g fat (31 g saturated)
1,930 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 17.5 José Olé Shredded Steak Taquitos—that’s almost a whole box!
Not only is this kid’s meal doused in greasy animal fats, but between the tortilla and the rice, it packs an astonishing 99 grams of carbohydrates—that’s more than twice as much as you’d find in the Kids’ Cheese Ravioli at Olive Garden. In short, you’re providing your kid with 75 percent of her calories for the day, but shorting her nutritionally—the quick-burning, cheap carbs will leave her hungry again in no time.
Kid’s Mexican Plate with Crispy Chicken Taco
12 g fat (4 g saturated)
530 mg sodium
This powerhouse plate packs a full 18 grams of protein, which will keep your child energized and feeling full for longer. The key is skipping the starchy side of rice (if he’s hungry enough, opt for fiber-rich beans instead) and eschewing the heaps of greasy free chips on the table.
Don’t forget to set a good example for the niños yourself! From tacos to tamales, here are the universal guidelines you need to Master the Mexican Menu.
Kids Meal with Popcorn Chicken, Potato Wedges, and Pepsi
32 g fat (6 g saturated)
1,535 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: More than seven Eggo Chocolate Chip Waffles!
Everything but the Pepsi here has taken a dip in the deep fryer. That’s no good. That means fryer grease accounts for 40 percent of the calories, and carbohydrates from the potatoes and bread make up more than half.
Kids Meal with Grilled Chicken Drumstick, Mashed Potatoes (no gravy), and Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters Tropical Fruit Juice Drink
7 g fat (1.5 g saturated)
625 mg sodium
Though this drumstick is grilled, KFC leaves the skin on for a more flavorful crust. And unlike the popcorn chicken, which is largely spackled in thick, starchy batter, the bulk of the drumstick is actually meat, providing 15 grams of protein.
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The “health halo” surrounding chicken is bright—so bright that it often blinds well-intentioned restaurant-goers to the fact that some fowl can be downright foul. Here we present The Most Deplorable Poultry Preparations in the country.
Mighty Kids Meal with McDouble, Fries, and 1 percent Chocolate Milk Jug
33 g fat (12 g saturated, 1.5 g trans)
1,230 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 18 slices of Kraft Singles 2 percent American cheese—nearly an entire package!
McDonald’s tries to market this as an intermediate meal for older kids, but unless that kid happens to be a professional boxer, he’s probably not going to burn off all 840 of these calories. This “kids” meal is atrocious even by ADULT standards. No child has any business consuming this many calories in one sitting.
Happy Meal with Hamburger, Apple Dippers, and Apple Juice Box
9 g fat (3.5 g saturated, 0.5 g trans)
540 mg sodium
Make this your child’s go-to meal when you’re on the go. He’ll rack up protein from the burger and fiber from the apple, but with caramel dipping sauce AND a toy, it still feels like a treat. Shoot for nutritionally well-rounded meals like this to help set up life-long positive eating patterns.
Surprised to spot an endorsement of the Golden Arches here? Don’t be. Despite a nasty rep, plenty of fast-food chains have decent fare hiding behind the drive-thru window. Find out which other dashboard delights are surprisingly healthy restaurant foods.
Kids Pasta with Alfredo Sauce
89 g saturated fat
652 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 775 Parmesan-flavored Pepperidge Farm Goldfish—that’s two bags!
This meal has more than a full day’s energy for an 8-year-old kid. Not even an adult portion should have this many calories. But most disturbing here is the saturated fat tally. For a healthy child eating about 1,600 calories a day, 89 grams is 5.5 times the maximum daily limit.
Kids Pasta with Marinara Sauce
2 g saturated
651 mg sodium
Many times restaurants will stick you with a severe sodium load to compensate for fewer calories. Fortunately, in a commendable move, the Cheesecake Factory keeps the sodium stable while cutting the saturated fat significantly. Plus, the marinara sauce boasts high levels of lycopene, an antioxidant compound that may protect your kid against a whole range of maladies down the road.
Eat This, Not That! For Kids!