Kid's Menus, What's to Eat?

Study: A survey of children's menus in 20 of the biggest sit-down chain restaurants found little variety but lots of fat.

Comments: We recently returned from a road trip with three kids age 2, 5 and 7, and we had an opportunity to check out lots of children's restaurant fare. While the adult menus usually offered a variety of choices, especially in ethnic restaurants, for the most part the kids' menus listed the same items (hamburgers, spaghetti, pizza, etc.) every time.

Yes, being presented with familiar dishes increases the odds that the kids will eat, perhaps allowing the adults to enjoy their meal. The problem is that while all the extra fat and carbs may be reassuring and soothing for everyone, they do not represent a healthy choice for children.

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.
Frederick Hecht, M.D.
Medical Editors,

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"What Would You Like with Your Fries?"

Sit-Down Restaurants' Kids' Fare Often Worse Than Fast Food, Says CSPI

Parents who think the food on kids' menus at table-service chain restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, and Outback are healthier than fast food should think again, according to a new study published today in the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) Nutrition Action Healthletter. The French fries, chicken fingers, burgers, and pizzas that make up the lion's share of most kids' menus have enough calories, bad (meaning saturated-plus-trans) fats, and salt to make most health-conscious parents nostalgic for the Happy Meal. But a few chains like Red Lobster are lightening up their kids' menus with at least a few excellent choices, according to CSPI.

CSPI surveyed 20 of America's biggest table-service chain restaurants that offer kids' menus. All but one menu offered French fries and 85 percent offered burgers. CSPI commissioned independent laboratory analysis of typical foods from seven chains-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.

"Many parents appreciate the kid-friendly atmosphere and free crayons at places like Applebee's, but not many would expect adult-sized calorie counts in a children's meal," said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne G. Hurley. "These chains should be encouraging kids to eat some of the healthy dishes they offer adults, but instead their kids' menus primarily feature oversized portions of burgers, fries, and fried chicken fingers. Now, kids come to expect that kind of junk food at school and at home."

Some of CSPI's findings include:

Outback Steakhouse: The Boomerang Cheese Burger with Fries has 840 calories and 31 grams of saturated-plus-trans fat-the fats that promote heart disease (Outback deep-fries in a beef tallow blend). To get an Outback meal that bad an adult would have to order a sirloin steak, a filet mignon, and three pats of butter, according to CSPI. Outback's Spotted Dog Sundae with chocolate sauce adds another 730 calories and 27 grams of bad fat, making it the worst kids' menu item CSPI analyzed. Any kid eating a cheeseburger, fries, Coke, and sundae at Outback will consume a stunning 1,700 calories and 58 grams of bad fat- three-and-a-half days' worth.

Applebee's: It's Grilled Cheese Sandwich alone has 520 calories and 14 grams of bad fat. With fries, the meal has 900 calories and more than a day's worth of bad fat-the equivalent of three pork chops.

Chili's: The Little Chicken Crispers have 360 calories and 8 grams of bad fat. Add fries and the meal supplies 710 calories and 15 grams of saturated-plus-trans fat-the equivalent of two McDonald's Quarter Pounders.

"Leave it to a chain like Chili's to turn a kid's chicken meal into the nutritional equivalent of two adult-size burgers," said Hurley, who pointed out that the chain fries in a partially hydrogenated oil that is higher in saturated and trans fat than liquid vegetable oil.