Let the scientists guide you through the labyrinth of chain restaurant kids' menus around the US to determine the healthiest roadside dining for your children.
Parents who think the food on kids’ menus at sit-down restaurants is healthier than fast food should think again, according to studies published in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Over time, CSPI has surveyed more than 20 of America’s biggest table-service chain restaurants that offer kids’ menus and commissioned an independent lab analysis of foods from seven of them — Applebee’s, Chili’s, Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster — to determine calories, total fat, saturated-plus-trans fat, and sodium.
As an example of the dark side, they found that a child eating a cheeseburger, fries, Coke and a dessert sundae at Outback Steakhouse would consume 1,700 calories and 58 grams of "bad" fat — or three-and-a-half times the daily recommended allowance.
On a positive note, CSPI found Red Lobster was revising kids’ menus to include grilled fish and steamed vegetables, in addition to presenting a free appetizer of fresh carrot sticks and cucumbers or applesauce. There's one caveat for traveling parents; CSPI found nutritional differences among similar-sounding menu items. For example, Applebee’s grilled cheese has twice the bad fat of Denny’s grilled cheese sandwich.
The CSPI reports are especially important because studies show kids today get one third of their calories from restaurants, and that they eat nearly twice as many calories at a restaurant than at home. “Many parents appreciate the kid-friendly atmosphere and free crayons,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne G. Hurley, but “these chains should be encouraging kids to eat some of the healthy dishes they offer adults.”
The CSPI actively lobbies to require nutrition information on menus as part of the Menu Education and Labeling Act (MEAL). Visit the CSPI site to read their 2008 report, Obesity on the Kids' Menus at Top Chains and their ground-breaking 2004 study: "What Would You Like with Your Fries?"
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.