March is National Nutrition Month – and what better way is there to improve the status of the nation’s nutrition than by helping our kids make healthier food choices? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Even worse, the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008.
There are many reasons experts believe that obesity in kids is on the rise but, obviously, food choice is a major part of the concern. These days, most of us are living in fast-forward. And, unfortunately, fast food is waiting on almost every corner to fuel up our fast-moving lives. For kids, especially, a trip to a fast food restaurant can also be a big treat that is sure to bring a smile.
High Calories in Kids’ Meals
Those colorful, cute bags and boxes complete with a toy inside can pack serious calories. The bad news is, in some places, just one meal can pack almost 1,000 calories – nearly the amount recommended for some elementary-aged kids to eat in a whole day. Take, for example, the popular McDonald’s cheeseburger happy meal. If you choose an order of small fries as the side and a carton of 1% chocolate milk as the drink, the meal weighs in at 700 calories (and 9 grams of saturated fat!). There’s nothing kiddie about that! Sonic’s grilled cheese, orange slush, and tots meal from the kids’ menu has nearly 800 calories – and significantly more if you load the tots up with the options of chili or cheese.
Life in the Fast Food Lane: 4 Ways to Improve Fast Food for Kids
- Skip the kids’ meals.Don’t feel compelled always to order the foods from the kids’ menu. In fact, expanding the options beyond those made especially for kids can help broaden your kid’s tastes while leading them to a wider range of better choices. Though the portion sizes are larger, you can choose a healthier meal and split it between kids or share with your child. Make it a goal to start early if you can, introducing your child to the tastes of healthy foods on the regular menu, so later the draw of the kids’ menu isn’t so strong.
- Set an example.You can’t order a double burger value meal with fries and then select grilled chicken and carrot sticks for your kids and expect them to be happy about it. Kids learn the most by example, so be prepared to make healthy choices yourself. Your payoff is that you rehab your own diet, and teach your kids something valuable in the process.
- Exercise options.Fries are part of childhood, and certainly part of the fast food experience. Help your child understand that many of the choices on the fast food menu are to be eaten only occasionally. Also, to prime them for a lifetime of making moderate choices, and since many fast food kids’ menus now allow you to build your meal, help them learn the concept of creating a healthy meal around a splurge. For example, if your child chooses a burger, the trade off is skipping the fries and ordering the apple slices or a banana instead.
- Choose a chain with an emphasis on health.The Center for Science in the Public Interest published a report in August 2008 showing that many of the restaurants they examined had kids’ meals that exceeded 430 calories per meal. Of those restaurants, Subway was the chain with the lowest percentage of their meals exceeding that number. The Fresh Fit for Kids menu is a great way to eat fast food and keep it healthy. Kids can choose among three options of small subs, a side of apples, and either a 1% milk or juice box to wash it all down.
The Bottom Line
Fast food menus for kids have made improvements, but they’re still not perfect. Helping your kids understand how to make better choices on a fast food menu as well as teaching them that sometimes it’s just better to eat at home are healthy habits that can set up a lifetime of good nutrition.
Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Master Degree in Public Health. An experienced nutrition counselor, writer and public speaker, Beth specializes in translating complex nutrition information into practical concepts. Beth was awarded a Nutrition Communications Fellowship to the National Cancer Institute, and has worked on the internationally recognized Nutrition Action Healthletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.