Chicken fingers. Mac ‘n cheese. You know the drill. But it’s still notable, if unsurprising, that 97 percent of the “kids meals” available at top restaurant chains around the country don’t meet an expert’s panel of recommended nutritional standards, according to a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the organization that once immortally dubbed fettuccine Alfredo a “heart attack on a plate.”) More than 90 percent of the meal combinations didn’t even meet the less stringent standards of a National Restaurant Association kid nutrition program, which, for instance, allowed 600 calories per serving instead of 430, according to the report. Subway was the only chain that shone, essentially getting an A+ for every one of its kid subs, which are served with apple slices and low-fat milk rather than the fries and sodas that torpedoed many other restaurant scores. In one of the examples of losers called out by CSPI, Applebee’s kid-sized Grilled Cheese on Sourdough with Fries and 2 Percent Chocolate Milk weighed in at 1,210 calories, with 62 grams of total fat and 2,340 milligrams of sodium.
I don’t necessarily expect my own meal at a restaurant to qualify as health food, so it doesn’t bother me to think that my child’s won’t either. But I’m still with the group wondering if the whole idea of a separate “kids menu” sets them up for second-class nutritional scores, focusing as those menus usually do on the breaded and the cheesy and the fried and the pre-formed ‘nuggets’ cut into dinosaur shapes.
Here are a few of my ideas for kids to at least eat as well as the adults when they eat out. Add your own favorites in the comments if you like. The meals may well be more than 430 calories, but they’ll probably rank better than typical “kid meals” in other survey-measured areas like vitamins and fiber, and at least your menus and theirs will be on the same page:
1. When time is tight, my family’s regular, inexpensive fast food stop is for pho. Somehow — maybe it’s the noodles — everyone can get a version to enjoy, even the vegetarian, whose bowl is loaded with broccoli and tofu at his favorite stop, Than Brothers. It’s still not health food, but it’s not fries and soda.
2. I wish more restaurants offered scaled-down items, like Meander’s Kitchen, where there are smaller and cheaper “little bit” options (think a single egg and one piece of meat with breakfasts.) “We don’t have a kids menu, because we don’t think children should eat different things than adults,” owner Miranda Krone once told me. Since most restaurants don’t sell half-portions, we look at appetizers and side orders as fair game for kid meals — they’re both sized and priced more appropriately for small appetites.
3. Different people have different comfort levels with kids eating sushi, but there are plenty of healthy kid-magnet options at most sushi places even if you’re steering clear of the fish. My own kids go for tamago (egg) and vegetarian rolls and bento boxes. At kaiten sushi places, they have the added thrill of pushing buttons and watching conveyer belts. CSPI, how’s that?