97% of Kids' Meals Flunk Nutrition, as Fried Chicken Fingers, Burgers, Fries, Soda Dominate at Chain Restaurants

Subway Stands Out as Only Chain Meeting CSPI Criteria

Nearly all of the meal possibilities offered to kids at America's top chain restaurants are of poor nutritional quality, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. In a report released today, the group found that fried chicken fingers, burgers, French fries, and sugar drinks continue to dominate the kids' meal landscape, with 97 percent of the nearly 3,500 meal possibilities not meeting CSPI's nutrition criteria for four- to eight-year-olds.

And if you don't believe CSPI, ask the National Restaurant Association: 91 percent of kids' meals at America's major chains do not even meet the nutritional standards of the industry lobbying group's Kids LiveWell program.

"One out of every three American children is overweight or obese, but it's as if the chain restaurant industry didn't get the memo," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries, and soda."

One chain that has gotten the memo is Subway, according to the report. All eight of Subway restaurants' Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI's nutrition criteria. Subway is the only restaurant chain that does not offer sugar drinks as an option with its kids' meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water along with apple slices with all of its kid-sized subs.

"Our goal has always been to provide the most nutritious, balanced kids meals in the industry and we are proud to be recognized by CSPI for achieving that goal," said Lanette Kovachi, corporate dietitian for the Subway brand. "As a mom and a dietitian I know that it's not easy to get kids to eat things that taste great and include essential nutrients. Our menu can make both parent and child happy."

To meet CSPI's nutrition criteria, kids' meals must not exceed 430 calories, more than 35 percent of calories from fat, or more than 10 percent of calories from saturated plus trans fat. Meals that meet CSPI's criteria cannot have more than 35 percent added sugars by weight nor more than 770 milligrams of sodium. The criteria require meals to make a positive nutritional contribution either by providing at least half a serving of fruit or vegetable, including an item that is 51 percent or more whole grain, or including specified levels of vitamins or fiber. CSPI's criteria exclude sugar drinks in favor of water, juice, or low-fat milk. The NRA's standards are quite similar, though they allow more calories.

Some of the least healthy kids' meals available at chain restaurants include:

  • Applebee's Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries and 2 Percent Chocolate Milk has 1,210 calories with 62 grams of total fat (46 percent of calories), 21 grams of saturated fat (16 percent), and 2,340 milligrams of sodium. That meal has nearly three times as many calories, and three times as much sodium, as CSPI's criteria for four-to eight-year-olds allow.
  • Chili's Pepperoni Pizza with Homestyle Fries and Soda has 1,010 calories, 45 grams of total fat (40 percent of calories), 18 grams of saturated fat (16 percent of calories, and about as much saturated fat as an adult should consume in an entire day), and 2,020 milligrams of sodium.
  • Denny's Jr. Cheeseburger and French Fries has 980 calories, 55 grams of total fat (50 percent of calories), 20 grams of saturated fat (18 percent) and 1,110 mg of sodium. Denny's does not include beverages with kids' meals.
  • Ruby Tuesday's Mac 'n Cheese, White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes, and Fruit Punch has 860 calories, 46 grams of total fat (48 percent of calories) and 1,730 mg of sodium. Ruby Tuesday's does not disclose saturated or trans fat content on its menus or website.
  • Dairy Queen's Chicken Strips, Kids' Fries, Sauce, Arctic Rush (a Slushee-type frozen drink) and Dilly Bar has 1,030 calories, 45 grams of total fat (39 percent of calories), 15 grams of saturated fat (13 percent of calories), and 1,730 mg of sodium.

At 19 chains, not a single possible combination of the items offered for children met CSPI's nutrition standards. At nine of those 19 chains, including McDonald's, Popeye's, Chipotle, and Hardee's, not a single kids' meal even met the NRA's Kids LiveWell standards. At Wendy's, only five percent of 40 possible kids' meals met CSPI's standards—most items were too high either in sodium or saturated fat; at Burger King, just 20 percent of the 15 possible kids' meals met CSPI's criteria. (At both of those chains, the same low percentages of possible meal combinations met the NRA's Kids LiveWell standards.)

CSPI last reviewed the nutritional quality of kids' meals at chain restaurants in 2008. Overall, chains have made little progress since then. In 2008, just one percent of kids' meals met CSPI's nutrition standards, compared with three percent in 2012. Only one-third of the restaurant chains had at least one meal that met the nutritional standards in 2008; that percentage climbed to 44 percent in 2012. While more meals met CSPI's sodium and calorie standards, fewer met CSPI's limit for saturated fat.

The report from CSPI recommends that companies consider several changes. It encourages chains to participate in the NRA's Kids LiveWell program, and to reformulate their kids' meals to meet those standards. Restaurants should offer more fruit and vegetable options, and make those, rather than French fries, the default sides. Chains should offer more whole grains and remove soda or other sugar drinks from kids' menus. And even though Subway was the only chain to meet CSPI's criteria for all its kids' meals, it should increase the whole grain content of its breads and continue to lower sodium, the group says.

"The chain restaurant industry is conditioning kids to accept such a narrow range of foods," said Ameena Batada, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina Asheville. "More chains are adding fruit, like apple slices, to their menus, but practically every chain could be adding more vegetable and whole grain options. And given the impact of sugar drinks on children's health, those should be eliminated from kids' meals at restaurants."