Between tricky restaurant choices, finicky eaters, and the desire to provide healthy, nourishing food, taking the kids out to eat can drive any parent crazy! We’ll give you the inside scoop on better choices and some easy steps on how to lighten up those kid-favorites. By: Toby Amidor, MS, RD and Karen Ansel, MS, RD
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the U.S. With many folks dining out on a regular basis, helping your child make healthy choices is essential. We reviewed 7 popular chain restaurants throughout the country and give you the inside scoop on what your little one should order to keep calories, fat, and sodium in check.
Thumbs Up: Kids Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich
Made from white whole-grain bread, this sandwich from Panera Bread contains 3 grams of filling fiber and is paired with 60-calorie organic yogurt (a better choice than chips). Peanut butter (about 2 tablespoons worth) is an excellent source of heart-friendly vegetable protein as well as niacin, vitamin E, and magnesium. With almost half the sodium as the other kids’ sandwich options, it’s clearly the better choice.
Thumbs Down: Signature Mac & Cheese
This 490-calorie meal doesn’t seem too terrible, but remember kids need fewer calories than adults. In this dish, 55 percent of the calories come from fat, 13 grams of which is saturated fat. To balance out the meal, split a PB&J or Smoked Turkey Sandwich between two children and add a few tablespoons of the Mac & Cheese on the side.
Thumbs Up: Pepper Pals Grilled Chicken Platter
When your child is dining off the Chili’s Grill & Bar Pepper Pals menu, the Grilled Chicken Platter is an overall healthy option with 170 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 720 milligrams of sodium. Side dishes and drinks aren’t included in the calorie information of the dish (but are included in the kid’s meal), so choose wisely. Some healthier sides include broccoli, mandarin oranges, pineapple, or celery sticks with Ranch.
Thumbs Down: Pepper Pals Side Cinnamon Apples
A medium apple contains 95 calories and is naturally fat free. However, this cinnamon-flavored menu item contains almost three times the calories and 11 grams of fat. While this side does offer a healthy dose of fiber, treat it as a dessert or skip it and choose any of the sides listed above as well as corn on the cob without butter or mashed potatoes without gravy.
Thumbs Up: Kids Mini Hamburger
Forgo the cheese and choose the Applebee’s single mini hamburger featuring 100% fresh ground beef for 340 calories and 14 grams of filling protein. This burger is quite filling, so skip the fries and pair it with steamed broccoli for just 25 calories. If the Kids menu in your town offers fried shrimp or pasta with marinara sauce, consider one of these options. Both are lower calorie and fat choices with 230 calories and 360 calories, respectively.
Thumbs Down: Kids Grilled Cheese (on sourdough bread)
With loads of sodium (1,430 milligrams to be exact), this isn’t an ideal choice for a growing child. With a whopping 620 calories, this entrée has more than twice the calories of an order of kids’ chicken tenders. Ask for whole-wheat bread to up the fiber and pair it with a side of applesauce (as opposed to fries) so you don’t add even more sodium to the meal.
Thumbs Up: Safari Nuggets
There’s no guilt choosing these Uno Chicago Grill oven-baked chicken nuggets for your child. One serving supplies a reasonable 250 calories and 12 grams of fat (only 2.5 grams are saturated). Compared to many other items on the kiddie menu, it’s lower in sodium too with 460 milligrams. Plus it dishes up 40% of the daily value for iron. Round out your child’s meal with a side of steamed broccoli, red grapes, or brown rice for extra fiber and nutrients.
Thumbs Down: Deep Dish Pepperoni Pizza
This deep dish pie serves up a staggering 900 calories, 62 grams of fat, and 1,470 milligrams of sodium. Your child can still go Italian. Order a 290-calorie bowl of whole grain pasta with tomato sauce (it counts as a veggie!). Your child will score 9 grams of fiber and at least 20% of their daily value for vitamins A and C.
Thumbs Up: Turkey Sandwich
A small turkey sandwich off the Così Kids menu has just 151 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 262 milligrams of sodium. Skip the chips, soda, and juice and choose baby carrots or a fruit cup and milk. Also, ask for the sandwich to be made on whole wheat bread for added fiber and whole grains.
Thumbs Down: Mississippi Mud Pie instead
With many of the sandwiches within reasonable calorie ranges (like tuna, turkey, and even grilled cheese), ordering this truly troublesome dessert will add a staggering 777 calories, 50 grams of fat, and 1,065 milligrams of sodium to the meal—yikes! Considering each kids’ meal already comes with a chocolate chip cookie, skip the kids’ dessert menu entirely.
Thumbs Up: Kids Grilled Chicken Breast with Broccoli
With only 280 calories, this meal from CPK is the lowest calorie entrée on the menu. Three grams of fiber and a low 456mg of sodium make it a good choice for your healthy eater. Pair with milk and if there’s room, round out the meal with fresh fruit.
Thumbs Down: Kids Curly Mac ‘n’ Cheese
With 960 calories, 33 grams saturated fat, and 699 milligrams of sodium this dish is well above the healthy limits for any child or adult. If noodles are on your child’s mind, choose the multigrain Fusilli (you can get it upon request) with Tomato Sauce to save 470 calories and 31 grams of saturated fat.
Thumbs Up: Garlic-Grilled Shrimp
When it comes to healthy kids meals, Red Lobster’s Kids’ Cove Menu has too many to list. Top honors go to the Garlic-Grilled Shrimp with just 60 calories and 1 gram of fat (0 saturated). Other top picks include the Broiled Fish and the Popcorn Shrimp for 140 calories each. Did we mention that we love that all of these come with 1% milk plus your child’s choice of broccoli or orange slices?
Thumbs Down: Frozen Strawberry Lemonade
With the exception of the Chicken Fingers, just about every kids’ pick is a winner. But there’s still trouble lurking on the kids’ drink menu. Red Lobster’s Kids’ Cove Smoothies, Slushies, and Lemonades all pour upwards of 250 calories. The biggest calorie bomb is the innocent-sounding Frozen Strawberry Lemonade, clocking in at 380 calories. Steer your child toward the gratuitous glass of milk instead.
Thumbs Up: Mac & Cheese
Friendly’s offers 2 kinds of entrées for children: Level 1, with smaller portions, and Level 2, with larger portions. In most cases the petite size Level 1 entrees are the smartest picks for kids of any age. The best of the bunch: Friendly’s Mac & Cheese. It’s surprisingly moderate in fat and calories with 340 calories and 11 grams of fat. Plus, your child will get plenty of protein and calcium. Friendly’s Mac comes complete with a side so your child has an opportunity to work in some produce too. Top picks include mixed vegetables, apple slices, or broccoli.
Thumbs Down: Chicken Quesadilla
Nearly all the Level 2 entrées dish up more fat and calories than most adults should eat, let alone a child. But the booby prize goes to the Chicken Quesadilla with a shameful 1,070 calories, 72 fat grams, and 2,340 milligrams of sodium.