Are the “healthy” choices fast food chains offer really good for your kids? Here’s a close-up view of real nutritional value and expert recommendations.
The latest fast food marketing craze is “healthy,” but are these foods really good for your kids?
Although fast food chains may be offering healthier meals than ever before, they are still not the well-balanced meal a child deserves, according to nutritionists. Just pulling up to the drive-thru often has the kids hollering for fries and a toy, and many restaurants provide cues for overeating.
According to the recent Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, by Gerber Products Inc., poor eating habits are already in the making just after kids start on table food. For the study, random telephone interviews were conducted in 2002 that asked parents or primary caregivers what their child, ages four months to two years, had eaten that particular day.
The study found that up to a third of the children under two consumed no fruits or vegetables and for those who did have a vegetable, French fries were the most common selection for 15-month-old children and older.
“Avoiding fast food restaurants is best because it is difficult to control the food content and these establishments provide a lot of stimulants and cues to over eat,” says Kymm Mutch, MS, RD, NEW (Nutrition, Exercise, and Weight Management) Kids at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. She is the dietitian who counsels kids and families daily about healthy food choices.
NEW Kids is a multidisciplinary program that includes a coordinated effort of nurse practitioners, psychologists, dietitians, exercise physiologists, and physicians.
“Let’s face it. In reality parents take their kids to fast food restaurants. I simply try and tell parents to limit their trips to a couple per month,” commented Mutch.
If you visit a local fast food place, Mutch recommends avoiding juice or soda, which contribute high calories and almost no nutritive value. “Instead,” she says, “choose milk or water for your child. As for the meal, go with a plain hamburger, which usually has less fat and calories than chicken nuggets. Also skip dessert.”
“It is good that some restaurants have put apple sauce on the menu but the fruit snacks are really a misnomer,” she said, noting that products with high fructose corn syrup can raise blood sugar and give children cramping and diarrhea.
Mutch suggests parents have the ingredients on hand to make fast meals at home. These include low sodium frozen meals (with sides of vegetables included), as well as sandwiches made with wheat bread, low fat cheese, and meat or low sodium canned soups. Other options include good old pasta with sauce, easily assembled tortilla mini pizzas, or burritos made with whole-wheat tortilla, refried beans, whole kidney beans or cheese.
The Round Up
At McDonald’s as well as other fast food restaurants salads are now available, but even these salads can contain anywhere from four to twenty one grams of fat depending on which combo you choose. Moreover, they are more expensive than the average fare and not so popular with the younger set.
According to The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average person over two should aim for a daily total fat intake of no more than 30 percent of calories. The USDA bases its guidelines for calorie intake on your age, gender and activity level. For example, children aged two to six years old, women and some older adults should have 1,600 calories per day and 53 grams of fat. For older children, teen girls, active women, and most men, the recommendation is 2,200 calories per day and 73 grams of fat. For teen boys and active men, allow 2,800 calories per day and 93 grams of fat.
The Happy Meal has at least 20 grams of fat, more if you order a higher fat ice cream dessert. A sample “healthy” meal from McDonald’s: Plain hamburger has 280 calories, 10 grams of fat, with 12 grams of protein. Their cheeseburger has 330 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 15 grams of protein. A small fry racks up 210 calories, 10 grams of fat and 3 grams of protein. If you choose the chicken nuggets (4 piece) instead, that accounts for 210 calories, 13 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. Choosing milk instead of soda adds 8 grams of protein and only 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat.
At Wendy’s, a junior hamburger kid’s meal runs 100 calories, with 7 grams fat and 9 grams of protein, while the small fries pack on 250 calories, with 11 grams of fat and 3 grams protein. Top it off with 2% milk and you’ll have 120 cal, 4.5 fat and 4 grams protein. Make sure to skip the Frosty, which adds 160 calories and 4 grams of fat, with 4 grams of protein. If you choose the 4-piece nuggets, it has 180 calories and 11 grams of fat with 8 grams of protein. In some regions a side dish of fruit is available instead of fries. This option would trim almost 11 grams of fat from the meal.
Burger King offers their fare fire-grilled. The kid’s meal is similar to McDonald’s and Wendy’s. For example, a hamburger has 310 calories, 14 grams of fat and 17 grams of protein. The small fries packs in 360 calories and 18 grams of fat with just 4 grams of protein. Chicken tenders rack up 210 calories, 12 grams fat and 14 grams protein.
The Colonel offers the kid’s “laptop meal,” which gets an A for inventive marketing, but not so high a grade for healthy eating. The laptop packaging features educational trivia and quizzes. The meal includes: three chicken strips (400 calories, 24 grams of fat, 29 grams protein), applesauce, milk or juice, and a Fruit by the Foot roll-up snack (about 50 calories and 7 grams of sugar and artificial coloring).
The Chick-Fil-A kid’s meal also features educational toys (including flash cards and science-type projects like “Magic Mud”) and one of the best tasting meals. The four-count chicken strips have 290 calories, 13 grams of fat and 29 grams of protein. The small waffle fries has 280 calories, 14 grams of fat and 3 grams of protein. A small soda has 110 calories, zero fat or protein and 28 grams of sugar.