Chow Line: Kids’ Menu Choices Not Always the Best Option

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When I take my family out to eat at a restaurant, most often I choose an option for my kids off the children’s menu because it’s food that they would eat and, frankly, it’s less expensive. But lately I’ve been hearing reports that say children’s menu options aren’t always the best choice nutritionally for kids. That leaves me to wonder — is the kids’ menu the best option?

That really depends on which restaurant you go to. According to a study led by the RAND Corp., an independent health policy research organization, and published recently in the journal Nutrition Today, many items offered on children’s menus at the nation’s top 200 restaurant chains have too many calories.

The study authors consulted with a panel of child nutrition experts who recommended that children ages 5 to 12 consume bundled meals that have no more than 600 calories, including the beverage. However, the study found that portions of a la carte items offered on many kids' menus averaged 147 percent more calories than recommended. The nutritionists recommend that single servings of entrees not exceed 300 calories, fried potatoes not exceed 100 calories, desserts not exceed 150 calories and unflavored milk not exceed 110 calories on kids' menus.

But, hundreds of single-serving options on kids’ menus exceeded 600 calories for just one item, without even including the rest of the meal. Those items included pizza, burgers, and macaroni and cheese.

A study of children’s entrées and side dishes at 29 chain restaurants published in the August 2015 Nutrition Journal found that one-third of main dishes at fast-food restaurants and half of main dishes at full-service restaurants exceeded levels of calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The issue is significant, considering that more than one in three children and adolescents consumed fast food every day, according to a recent study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For kids, eating more restaurant food is associated with higher daily calorie intake from added sugar and saturated fats, the study found.

While that may sound overwhelming for parents, there are ways to make healthier menu choices for your kids when dining out.

Many restaurants participate in the Kids LiveWell program created by the National Restaurant Association. Participating restaurants commit to offering at least one full children’s meal (an entrée, side and beverage) that is 600 calories or less; contains two or more servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and/or low-fat dairy; and limits sodium, fats and sugar. Check out the Kids LiveWell locator app and look for the icon on the kids’ menu that indicates a healthful choice.

You can make healthier menu choices for your kids at any restaurant by choosing items low in fat, salt, and added sugars. Try adding a side order of greens like salad, broccoli, green beans or asparagus as an appetizer. And instead of the soda, milkshake or fruit juice that is often included in a kids’ meal, opt for water to wash down the meal. Drinking tap water can be a real money-saver for you, too.

As the issue of children’s health and obesity continues to be a main focus of the food industry, it could lead to more healthful kids’ menu options at restaurants, especially as more parents are becoming more aware of the issue.

In fact, according to Technomic’s 2016 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 46 percent of diners with kids aged 12 and younger say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers nutritious options for children. That kind of market-driven demand could give you even more options in the future.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness for Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
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Carol Smathers
OSU Extension, Youth Nutrition and Wellness