Obesity on the Kids' Menus at Top Chains

CSPI Investigation Reveals Kids’ Meals at Restaurants Usually Too High in Calories, and Good Options Hard to Find


WASHINGTON—Nearly every single possible combination of the children's meals at KFC, Taco Bell, Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Chick-fil-A is too high in calories, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which today released the results of an investigation into the nutritional quality of kids’ meals at 13 top restaurant chains. Ninety-three percent of 1,474 possible choices at the 13 chains exceed 430 calories—an amount that is one-third of what the Institute of Medicine recommends that children aged four through eight should consume in a day.

Chili’s has 700 possible kids’ meal combinations, but 658, or 94 percent, of those are too high in calories, including one comprised of country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples, and chocolate milk (1,020 calories) and another comprised of cheese pizza, homestyle fries, and lemonade (1,000 calories). Burger King has a "Big Kids" meal with a double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk (910 calories), and Sonic has a "Wacky Pack" with 830 calories worth of grilled cheese, fries, and a slushie.

KFC has a wide variety of side items, but there are few meal combinations that keep a reasonable ceiling on calories, according to the study. One example of a high-cal combo KFC kid’s meal (the chain calls them "Laptop Meals") has popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, Teddy Grahams, and fruit punch, which has 940 calories. (KFC has since dropped Baked Cheetos from its kids’ meals, and some outlets vary the number of chicken strips or sides.)

Most of the kids’meals (93 percent) at McDonald’s and Wendy’s are too high in calories, as are the possibilities at Burger King (92 percent), Dairy Queen (89 percent), Arby's (69 percent), and Denny's (60 percent—though its kids' meals don’t include drinks). (Since CSPI’s study was completed, Burger King has introduced one new children's meal with macaroni and cheese, apple "fries," and 1 percent milk, which has a reasonable 420 calories.)

Subway's kids' meals came out on top. Only a third of its Fresh Fit for Kids meals, which include a mini-sub, juice box, and one of several healthful side items (apple slices, raisins, or yogurt), exceed the 430-calorie threshold. Subway is the only chain that doesn’t offer soft drinks with kids’ meals.

"Parents want to feed their children healthy meals but America’s chain restaurants are setting parents up to fail," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and other chains are conditioning kids to expect burgers, fried chicken, pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and soda in various combination at almost every lunch and dinner."

Besides being almost always too high in calories, 45 percent of the kids' meals at the 13 chains studied by CSPI are too high in saturated and trans fat, and 86 percent are too high in sodium. That’s alarming, according to CSPI, because a quarter of children between the ages of five and ten show early signs of heart disease, such as high LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) or elevated blood pressure.

"People may not get a heart attack until their 50s or 60s, but arteries begin to clog in childhood," said Wootan. "Most of these kids’ meals appear to be designed to put America’s children on the fast-track to obesity, disability, heart attack, or diabetes."

Though the overwhelming majority of chain restaurant kids' meals are nutritionally poor, calorie counts on menus and menu boards would help parents assemble healthier meals for their children. If Arby’s kids' meals had calorie counts, parents could see that substituting a fruit cup and a juice box for fries and a soda would cut a popcorn chicken meal from 720 calories to 420. If Denny’s listed calories on menus, parents could see the surprising difference between the calories in Big Dipper French Toastix (770) and Smiley-Alien Hotcakes (without meat, 370).

CSPI has advocated laws or regulations that require chain restaurants to list calories on menus and menu boards. They've already begun appearing in New York City. San Francisco, King County (Seattle), WA., Multnomah County (Portland), OR, and Santa Clara County, CA, also have passed menu labeling policies. Similar policies have been introduced in over 20 other states and localities over the last two years. California’s legislature may be on the verge of passing a statewide menu labeling bill, which lobbyists for the chain restaurant industry are fighting tooth and nail. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, an advocacy group leading the fight for menu labeling legislation in that state, collaborated with CSPI on the study released today.

CSPI only scrutinized the chains that have dedicated children’s menus (19 out of the top 25 chains) and that provide nutrition information on their web sites or elsewhere (13 chains). Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and IHOP do not disclose nutrition information for most menu items even upon request. 

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