Kid's Menus, What's to Eat? (cont.)

Red Lobster revamped its kids' menu after CSPI's lab work was complete, so nutrition data for the chain's new menu items weren't available at press time. Although it still sells some of its less healthful items, Red Lobster's new menu is a huge step forward. The chain's free appetizer of fresh carrot sticks and cucumbers or applesauce is a great improvement over its own biscuits. And three new lower-calorie entrees-Snow Crab Legs, Grilled Mahi-Mahi, and Grilled Chicken-come with steamed vegetables.

Macaroni Grill and Cracker Barrel are the only other chains CSPI looked at that offer kids a choice of grilled chicken. CSPI also praised Olive Garden for offering a Spaghetti & Tomato Sauce kids entree, but panned that chain's Cheese Pizza, which provides eight grams of heart-harmful fat.

CSPI found dramatic nutritional differences among similar-sounding menu items at different chains, underscoring the need for nutrition information on chain restaurant menus. For instance, Applebee's grilled cheese has twice the bad fat of Denny's grilled cheese sandwich; Cracker Barrel's macaroni and cheese has almost three times the bad fat of Chili's macaroni and cheese; and Chili's fried chicken fingers have three times the calories of Cracker Barrel's grilled ones. At Olive Garden, its kid-sized pizza has eight times the bad fat of its spaghetti with tomato sauce-but without nutrition information on menus, parents are just left to guess, according to CSPI.

"If kids' menus have rooms for puzzles, mazes, word games, and advertising, surely they have enough room for some basic nutrition information," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "And if chains like these are clever enough to put carbs on menus for Atkins dieters, they could find a way to put calories and key nutrients on kids' menus, so parents could help their sons and daughters avoid obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other life-threatening health problems."

Legislation that would require large chain restaurants to print nutrition information on menus is pending in five states, the District of Columbia, and in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced that he is introducing the Menu Education and Labeling Act (MEAL) in the Senate. Similar legislation was introduced in the House last year by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

"Childhood obesity is not only a growing public health problem, it's also a very expensive one," Harkin said. "With kids getting a third or their calories from restaurants, fast-food and other chain restaurants must play a role in fighting childhood obesity. Nutrition information on menus will help parents guide their kids' food choices, and their own as well."

The Department of Agriculture's suggested intake for "low-active" children aged four to eight is 1,500 calories and 17 grams of saturated-plus-trans fat. Studies show that kids eat nearly twice as many calories at a restaurant than they would when they eat at home.

Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest Press Release, February 24, 2004 (

Last Editorial Review: 2/25/2004