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.

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.