97% of Restaurant Kids' Meals Are Unhealthy, Consumer Group Says

french fries
At fast food restaurants, most parents buy their children unhealthy items that can account for up to 51 percent of a child's daily calorie needs, even though healthier options are available, the study shows. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Despite steps by some chain restaurants to offer healthier kids' meals, most still aren't very nutritious, according to a new report.

Of the3,500 meals from 41 top chain restaurantsthat were analyzed, just 3 percent met the nutrition standards set by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the advocacy organization that conducted the report.

Fifty percent of the meals had more than 600 calories, 78 percent offered soft drinks as a beverage option and 73 percent offered fries as a side.

The report named several meals as particularly egregious examples of unhealthy offerings, including the following:

  • Applebee's: Grilled-cheese sandwich with fries and chocolate milk, which together contain 1,210 calories, 62 grams of fat and 2,340 milligrams (mg) of sodium — nearly three times the daily amount of sodium recommended by the CSPI.
  • Chili's: Pepperoni Pizza with fries and soda, which total 1,010 calories, 45 grams of fat and 2,020 mg of sodium.
  • Dairy Queen: Chicken strips, fries, sauce, an Arctic Rush (frozen drink) and a Dilly Bar (ice cream bar), which add up 1,030 calories, 45 grams of fat and 1,730 mg of sodium.

"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," Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at CSPI, said in a statement.. "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."

In order to meet CSPI's standards, kids' meals cannot have more than 430 calories (including no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, and 10 percent of calories from saturated and trans fats), 35 percent added sugars by weight and 770 mg of sodium. Additionally, CSPI-approved meals need to offer one of the following nutritious items: at least a half-serving of fruit or vegetables, an item made from at least 51 percent whole grains, or a specified level of vitamins or fiber.

The standards from the National Restaurant Association, an industry group, are similar but allow more calories.

At 19 chains, including Popeyes and Carl's Jr., not a single combination of the items offered for kids met CSPI’s standards, and nine chains met the National Restaurant Association's criteria.

Nonetheless, there has been some improvement in kids' meals over the years. In 2008, just 1 percent of meals met the CSPI's nutrition standards, and the percentage of meals that met the CSPI's criteria for sodium has increased from 15 percent in 2008 to 34 percent in 2012.

To make meals more nutritious, the CSPI recommended that restaurants offer kids meals with more fruit and vegetable options (making these default sides) and more whole-grain items, as well as remove soda and other sugary drinks from the meals.

Pass it on: Most kids' meals offered at chain restaurants aren't very nutritious.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.