04/01/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Most Kids' Meals at Restaurant Chains Are Unhealthy: What You Can Do

A new study out last week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., found that most meals from national chain restaurants marketed to children were not healthy and did not meet nutrition standards for healthy eating. This is quite troubling, considering the high obesity rates among today's youth and all the eating out we do. We currently spend nearly half of our food dollars on foods consumed outside the home.

Of the nearly 3,500 meal combinations studied, 97 percent of the meals targeted to kids failed to meet healthy standards developed by nutrition experts. Such standards suggest that a children's meal contain: no more than 430 calories, no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, and no more than 770 mg sodium, among other parameters.

Ninety-one percent of such meals failed to meet the standards set by the National Restaurant's Association Kids LiveWell Program. Such standards require that at least one children's meal (including a beverage) contain fewer than 600 calories, contain no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, and contain at least two servings of the following: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.

As reported in the New York Times, when CSPI conducted the study back in 2008, they found that 99 percent of kids' meals were unhealthy and failed to meet standards set by nutrition experts.

Why do so many meals get a failing grade? The answer is pretty obvious. They contained sugary beverages, fried foods (including French fries and fried chicken), burgers, and full-fat cheese, in addition to other unhealthy ingredients. The calorie counts, fat, sugar, and sodium levels often exceeded standards. One meal contained 3,200 mg of sodium, more than twice the amount recommended for kids for an entire day.

For some good news: The chain Subway did not offer sugary beverages with kids' meals. (They were the only chain to do so.) Instead they suggested water or low-fat milk. And the chain's entire line of Fresh Fit for Kids meals met nutrition standards. It would be great if other restaurants followed Subway's lead.

As a nutritionist advocating for healthy choices and educating families on nutrition and healthy eating, here are six things you can do when taking youngsters out to eat in a restaurant:

  • Order meals that contain fruits and/or vegetables. Think colorful!
  • Skip the white bread products and choose whole grains (i.e., whole-wheat breads and pastas).
  • Choose water or low-fat dairy instead of soda or other sugary beverages.
  • Skip the extra cheese.
  • Order sauces on the side.
  • Choose grilled, baked, roasted dishes instead of fried dishes.

And better yet, get kids into the kitchen, and involve them in the cooking process. You may be pleasantly surprised.

For more by Dr. Lisa Young, click here.

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