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- Fast-food is a convenient option when you’re on the go.
- Kids’ meals have expanded to include healthier options.
- Smart substitutions and opting for healthier sides can boost the nutritional value of a meal.
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For a quick, kid-friendly meal on the go, fast food is undoubtedly convenient. Though it may not be the healthiest of options, fast-food kids’ meals have expanded to include more whole foods, like fresh fruit, in the face of more health-conscious consumers.
INSIDER consulted with Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, and Jonathan Valdez, owner of Genki Nutrition and media spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to give their take on some standard fast food kids’ meals at some of the most popular chains in the US using general dietary guidelines for children.
Just a note that we tried to pick standard kids meals from these chains that were representational of their menu but options may vary based on your location and availability.
Chipotle — chicken quesadilla, brown rice, black beans, blueberries, Tree Top organic apple juice.
- Business Insider/Hayley Peterson
This meal was one of the favorites of both experts. It’s a customizable option with various proteins to choose from, but for comparison’s sake, the experts were presented with a quesadilla made with a flour tortilla and filled with chicken and cheese, with brown rice and black beans on the side.
“This is a solid meal,” said Gorin. “You get a balance of protein from the chicken, beans, and cheese, whole grains from the brown rice, and fiber from beans and blueberries.”
Wendy’s — grilled chicken wrap, apple slices, milk.
Another meal that pleased both Valdez and Gorin. Simple and straightforward, the wrap features an herb-marinated grilled chicken breast, shredded cheddar cheese, spring mix, and honey mustard, all inside a flour tortilla.
Panera Bread — peanut butter & jelly, Horizon reduced fat organic chocolate milk.
- Panera Bread
Panera Bread offers a wide range of options for kids, many of which are smaller or half portions of regular menu items. For the purposes of this piece, our experts considered their classic PB&J.
“I like that the sandwich is served on whole grain bread,” said Gorin. “You end up with added sugar from the jelly and chocolate milk, but at least the meal doesn’t contain anything fried.”
Panda Express — fried rice, orange chicken, chocolate chip chunk cookie, soft drink.
The kids’ meal from Panda Express, includes a kids’-sized entrée and side, a small drink, and a cookie. “This meal is extremely high in calories, with more than 1,000 calories,” said Gorin. “The fried rice is cooked in oil, which significantly increases the calories.”
As an alternative, Gorin recommends a half order of steamed brown rice, a side of super greens, and grilled teriyaki chicken as the main. She’d also swap the Pepsi for water or unsweetened iced tea.
Subway — turkey breast mini, apple slices, Honest Kids juice.
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If you’re eating at Subway, Gorin recommends using the customizable counter-service model to your advantage and adding extra vegetables to this sandwich.
Sonic — corn dog, tots, fruit punch.
- Flickr/Bob B. Brown
The kids’ menu at Sonic is lacking in healthy options, with dishes like corn dogs, hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and sides like tater tots and French fries – although you can opt for Tree Top applesauce instead.
“You’re not getting much in the way of nutritional quality here – and you’re also not getting much protein in this meal, which is a nutrient that helps to tide you over,” said Gorin. “The fruit punch contains a significant amount of added sugar.”
Burger King — hamburger, Mott’s applesauce, Capri Sun apple juice.
- Burger King
“I’d suggest requesting extra veggies on the burger,” said Gorin. “I like that the burger is served with unsweetened applesauce.” She recommends swapping the juice for milk as you’re already getting fruit and sweetness from the applesauce.
McDonald’s — 4-piece Chicken McNuggets, fries, apple slices, 1% low-fat milk jug.
- Photo Courtesy of McDonald’s
The McDonald’s Happy Meal had experts in two minds. Despite the addition of wholesome options like apple slices and low-fat milk, there are still two deep-fried components to this meal, making it a so-so choice.
Chick-fil-A — Chick-n-Strips, milk, fruit cup.
The kids’ menu at Chick-fil-A is straightforward and all about the chicken, with two nuggets options, one grilled, one pressure cooked, and some hand-breaded tenders.
“I’d suggest ordering the grilled nuggets, versus the Chick-n-Strips,” said Gorin.
Popeyes — mild chicken leg, macaroni & cheese, sweet tea.
- Hollis Johnson
Kids’ meals at Popeyes consist of a mild chicken tender or leg, a regular signature side, and a small drink. A 22-ounce serving of sweet tea contains 45 grams of sugar. This can add up to be not the healthiest meal if you go with something like sweet tea.
“The sweet tea contains quite a high amount of added sugar, and you’re also getting a lot of saturated fat from the chicken leg and mac and cheese,” said Gorin.
Swapping out the tea for something like milk or water can help, as can the addition of packable snacks like fruit.