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Some 'kids' meals' pack whole day's serving of calories


Nanci Hellmich

USA Today

August 4, 2008


The first comprehensive report on kids' meals at popular fast-food and chain restaurants finds the servings are far too high in calories for a single meal.

In fact, some of the meals contain more 1,000 calories, which is almost as many calories as some elementary-school children need for the entire day, according to the analysis from Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.

The report shows, for instance, that:

Chili's country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk has 1,020 calories.

KFC's popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, Teddy Grahams and fruit punch, has 940 calories.

Sonic's Wacky Pack with grilled cheese, fries and a slushie, has 830 calories.

Overall, the findings reveal that 93% of the kids' meals at McDonald's and Wendy's contain more than 430 calories, the average number of calories that children ages 4 to 8 should get at a single meal. The comparable numbers are 92% at Burger King; 89% at Dairy Queen; 69% at Arby's; 60% at Denny's. The latter's kids' meals don't include drinks.

On the healthful side, about 67% of the kids' meals at Subway have fewer than 430 calories.

"When you go to most chain restaurants, ordering off the kids' menu is a nightmare," says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the mother of a 10-year-old daughter.

"Right now kids' meals are almost all unhealthy meals when they should be almost all healthy meals," she says "At the very least, restaurants should list calories on the menu so that parents can navigate through this minefield of calories and fat to find the healthy options."

Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, says over the last few years, "there have been a lot of changes to our restaurant menus, especially children's meals. More and more options are available. Restaurants are offering low-fat milk, yogurt, apples and vegetables as part of the children's menu. They are helping parents help their children make wise choices when they dine out."

Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in Boston with three children and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler, says "kids' meals can be outrageously high in calories, fat, and sodium, but it's possible to go into just about any restaurant and cobble together a healthy meal for a child. If the children's menu doesn't look healthy, you have to look elsewhere."

The average child, under 18, eats 167 restaurant meals in a year, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

"Eating out is no longer a special occasion, it's a lifestyle now, so we have to be more selective about what we eat," says Keith Ayoob, who works with overweight kids at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "This is a wakeup call that parents need to take advantage of restaurants' healthier options, especially if kids are going to be eating out three or more times a week.

"Most kids don't clean their plates so they are probably not eating all these calories," he says.

For the latest study, nutritionists with CSPI analyzed the calories in 1,474 different meal combinations at 13 chain restaurants. The nutrition information was gathered from the chains' websites and corporate offices. Many of the restaurants offer numerous kids' meal combinations and each meal was considered separately.

CSPI used national nutrition standard recommendations from different groups to determine nutrient needs for children. The Institute of Medicine guidelines recommend that moderately active children, ages 4 to 8, consume about 1,300 calories a day. Therefore, the consumer group calculated that a single meal should not contain more than 430 calories.

The findings showed that overall 45% of the meals are too high in saturated (animal) and trans fat and 86% were too high in sodium.

Not surprisingly, kids' menus include mostly foods such as burgers, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, french fries and soft drinks. Sodas are the most popular beverage offered to children. Subway is the only chain that does not offer soda as an option on kids' meals.

Some healthier alternatives are available including grilled chicken, seafood, whole-grain wild rice, yogurt and fruit.

Among the kids' meals that have fewer than 430 calories and weren't too high in saturated and trans fats:

Subway's ham mini-sub, 1% milk box and apple slices, 405 calories.

Subway's roast beef (or turkey) sub with juice box and yogurt, 400 calories.

Chili's grilled chicken sandwich, apple juice and mandarin oranges, 338 calories

Denny's pancakes without meat with maple syrup, 373 calories; or macaroni and cheese with grapes, 413 calories. (The meals do not include beverages.)

Arby's popcorn chicken or junior roast beef sandwich, fruit cup and fruit juice, 422 calories.

Some major chain restaurants were not included in the study because they did not provide enough nutrition information to evaluate calories. Those chains included Applebee's, TGIFriday's, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and IHOP. Some places, such as Pizza Hut and Dunkin' Donuts, don't have kids' menus and weren't included in the report.






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