Is the Kids’ Meal Making Your Child Fat?

By Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN

It’s a fact of modern life: Childhood obesity rates are double what they were just 30 years ago. Many parents scratch their heads and wonder what the culprit is, but it’s hard to pinpoint one thing harming the health and fitness of our children. A combination of diet, exercise and lifestyle factors are driving the trend.

The other undeniable fact is that kids eat fast food more than they ever have before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of children and 41 percent of teenagers eat at a fast-food restaurant on any given day. Lunching on a burger and fries is such a common practice that every parent should take a close look at the how it’s affecting their child’s health.

A Closer Look at Calorie Counts in Kid’s Meals

Child nutritionists consulted as part of a recent study suggested a maximum of 300 calories for the main component of a child’s meal, such as the hamburger, chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese. However, when they examined the calorie counts of these items at the top 200 restaurant chains in the United States, the main dish in kids’ meals averaged over 450 calories – 50 percent more than recommended.

French fries were the top offender identified in the study. The Registered Dietitians recommended that fries account for no more than 100 calories in a meal, but most servings at these chain restaurants averaged 287 calories.

The nutritionists also recommended the entire kids’ meal should be 600 calories or less, but virtually all restaurants reviewed exceeded this maximum for their average kids’ meals.

What Should Parents Do to Combat Obesity?

It’s unlikely that your child will be able to avoid fast food restaurants completely since they are such an integral part of American culture. Kids go to fast food restaurants with their teammates after a baseball game, to celebrate a birthday party or to bond with friends after school. Kids are like sponges when developing their eating habits, so being the role model for choosing healthy options starts with you.

However, you should encourage your children to make smart choices when they do go to a fast food restaurant. To their credit, many chains now offer healthier options on their kids’ menus. Here’s how to make the most of this trend:

  • Skip the soda: Most kids’ meals now offer the option to replace calorie-laden soda with water, juice or low-fat milk. Water is the best option for hydration and saves on average roughly 100 calories each you purchase a kids’ meal. Milk is the second best option since it contains less added sugar than juice, has both calcium and protein for growing bones.
  • Choose a healthier side: An even better option is to skip the French fries completely. Most kids’ meals now offer the option to choose a healthier side with your burger or chicken nuggets, such as yogurt or sliced fruit.
  • Split the fries: French fries are delicious, but they’re calorie bombs. If you’re ordering a meal too, don’t order French fries for yourself. Instead, split the fries that come with the kids’ meal with your child.
  • Limit your visits: Instead of once a week, limit trips as much as possible. Get your kids involved in meal planning, prepping, and cooking when in the home. Finding recipes that mimic fast food meals can ensure that kids aren’t feeling left out, but you know that they are getting the boosting nutrition from being able to control what goes in their bodies!

For most people, fast food is an inevitability. However, you and your family can maintain your health and still enjoy the occasional treat by making smart choices about what you consume at your favorite restaurant chain.

About the Author

Joy Saudargas, MA, RD, LDN

Joy specializes in medical nutrition therapy. One of her favorite things about being a Registered Dietitian at Crozer-Keystone Health System is the sense of community and togetherness she experiences within the system.

To schedule a nutrition appointment, please call 800-254-3258.

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