Thursday, August 7, 2008
The Chicago Tribune reports on a study from the Center for Science that finds 93% of all kids meals offered by thirteen of the top fast food chains contain too many deep-fried calories. Monica Eng writes,
It's 7 p.m. and your tots are cranky and hungry. Where can you go for a fast kids meal that won't make you feel like a bad parent?
Not many restaurant chains, according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that was released Monday. The CSPI study found a whopping 93 percent of all kids meals offered by 13 top chains contain too many calories. In fact, several meals hover around the 1,000-calorie mark, far above the roughly 430-calorie-a-meal recommendation from the Institute of Medicine for sedentary children 4 to 8 years old.
With so many restaurants called out for heavy use of soft drinks and fried foods on so many of their children's meals, it can be tough to guide your child's dining choices. But at least one dietitian points out that there are smart ways to eat at chain restaurants.
"Don't be too alarmed even when [studies] come out and seem hopeless," said Dawn Jackson Blatner, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. "With a few swaps and switches, people really can make healthier choices at these fast-food joints, especially when the decisions are made before going in.
"Many of these restaurants have the nutrition information online that you can print out and go over with your kids even before you go, so that everybody is on the same page before they pull up to the drive-through or [head] to the counter," Blatner said.
How is it cooked?
She also suggested that "instead of getting the fries, go with the apple slices. Many [restaurants] offer carrot sticks or apple slices or no-sugar-added applesauce or oranges, which make a big difference over deep-fried fries."
And pay attention to how food is cooked. "Instead of the deep-fried nuggets, go for something like the grilled chicken, and you will save fat grams and calories," Blatner said. You'll also save calories by switching the soda, she added: "You can't go wrong with unsweetened iced tea, water or a skim milk."
Chili's was cited as one of the worst offenders; its kids meal of country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk packs 1,020 calories. Burger King's "Big Kids" meal (a double cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milk) checks in at 910 calories. Sonic's kids meal of a grilled cheese sandwich, fries and slushie adds up to 830 calories.
And KFC's "Laptop Meal" of popcorn chicken, baked beans, a biscuit, Teddy Grahams and fruit punch, weighs in at 940 calories—though the chain contested those numbers since the restaurant no longer includes a biscuit in that meal, according to a KFC representative.
Many chains were quick to challenge the CSPI numbers, among them Chili's and KFC. At least three KFC Kids Meal options check in at under 430 calories, according to KFC's Rick Maynard.
Restaurants with the worst overall scores included KFC, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Sonic and Chick-fil-A. All of their children's meals exceeded the 430-calorie limit. Chili's, McDonald's and Burger King scored only slightly better, with 92 percent to 94 percent of their meals failing the study's guidelines.
The CSPI, a Washington-based non-profit consumer advocacy and education group, is often derisively referred to as the "food police" for coming out against a range of foods, including fettuccine alfredo ("heart attack on a plate") and ice cream ("coronaries in cones").
CSPI based its optimal calorie count at 430 because it is one-third of the average daily calories recommended by the Institute of Medicine for sedentary children age 4 through 8. An active child in that range would require an average of about 565 calories per meal, according to the IOM, a component of the National Academies of Science.
The study also found that 45 percent of the kids meals were high in saturated fat and trans fat, and 86 percent were high in sodium.A Bright SpotThe report's bright spot among restaurant kids meals was Subway. Out of the sandwich chain's 18 children's meal combinations, only six exceeded the 430-calorie limit. Subway is also the only chain that did not offer soda as a default option for its kids meals.
The CSPI study, "Kids' Meals: Obesity on the Menu," arrived at its list of 13 restaurants by starting with the nation's 25 largest chains by revenue. The list was pared down to those that offer dedicated children's meals and pared further to include those that provide nutritional information upon request. The study examined all possible kids meal combinations at each eatery.
Applebee's, T.G.I. Friday's, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and IHOP did not disclose their nutrition information, according to the study.
"It's so sad to see that restaurants are still dishing out fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries, grilled cheese sandwiches and soda to our kids. These are generally high calories, fatty, salty foods, and generally things kids should not be eating," said Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, adding that he hopes the report will encourage restaurants to start offering "healthier options for kids and more information to parents in the form of calorie counts on the menus."