August 5, 2008

Kids’ Menus Packed With Calories

By Nanci Hellmich

Nutritionists say a new report on calorie-packed children's meals at some of the nation's most popular restaurants should be a warning for health-conscious parents.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C., released the first comprehensive report Monday on children's meals at popular fast-food and chain restaurants. The center's analysis found that many servings are far too high in calories for a single meal.

Some of the meals contain more than 1,000 calories, almost as many as some elementary-school children need for the entire day.

"When you go to most chain restaurants, ordering off the kids' menu is a nightmare," says Margo Wootan, the center's nutrition policy director and mother of a 10-year-old girl. "At the very least, restaurants should list calories on the menu so parents can navigate through this minefield of calories and fat to find the healthy options."

The report shows:

*Chili's country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk total 1,020 calories.

*KFC's popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, Teddy Grahams and fruit punch total 940 calories.

*Sonic's Wacky Pack of grilled cheese, fries and a slush has 830 calories.

The study shows 93% of the kids' meals at McDonald's and Wendy's contain more than 430 calories, the average number that some guidelines suggest children ages 4 to 8 get at a single meal. The percentage of meals that top 430 calories at other chains are: 92% at Burger King, 89% at Dairy Queen, 69% at Arby's and 60% at Denny's. The kids' meals at Denny's don't include drinks.

On the healthful side, about 67% of kids' meals at Subway have fewer than 430 calories.

Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy for the National Restaurant Association, says: "There have been a lot of changes to our restaurant menus, especially children's meals. More and more options are available. Restaurants are offering low-fat milk, yogurt, apples and vegetables as part of the children's menu. They are helping parents help their children make wise choices."

Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in Boston who has three children, says, "Kids' meals can be outrageously high in calories, fat and sodium, but it's possible to go into just about any restaurant and cobble together a healthy meal for a child."

The average child has 167 restaurant meals in a year, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.

The consumer group's nutritionists analyzed calories in 1,474 meal combinations at 13 chain restaurants. The Institute of Medicine guidelines recommend moderately active children, ages 4 to 8, consume about 1,300 calories a day. The center calculated a single meal should not contain more than 430 calories.

Chains that do not have children's menus were not part of the study. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>