When you think of healthy dining choices for your children, chances are that fast food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind — there are countless nutritional pitfalls to avoid on fast food kids’ menus. In recent years, however, some of the more popular fast food chains have begun providing healthier alternatives to the classic burger-and-fries combo. In fact, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the number of possible kids’ meal combinations available at these restaurants has increased 54% between 2010 and 2013.
With water and juice, fruits, and leaner cuts of meat on the menu, fast food restaurants now allow children to enjoy their food without the same degree of health risk. That said, fast food chains still have a long way to go: Many options remain perilously high in calories and fat, and it’s important to make the correct decisions when it comes time to eat.
Here are the very best and worst in kids’ nutritional options from America’s five favorite fast food chains.
McDonald’s devotes an entire section of its website to nutritional choices, specifically, nutritional choices for children. According to Jeff Stratton, president of McDonald’s USA, McDonald’s Happy Meals have automatically included apple slices since March 2012, a change that has resulted in 20% fewer calories in all of the most popular Happy Meal choices.
Opting for the four-piece white meat nuggets, apple slices, low-fat strawberry yogurt, and apple juice will put your child’s meal at a reasonable 335 calories and 12.5 grams of fat — as fast food aficionados know, you could do much more damage to your system with this menu. Take, for example, a cheeseburger Happy Meal with a side of yogurt and a chocolate milk: this selection will total out at 580 calories and 16.5 grams of fat.
A standard Wendy’s Kids Meal with a cheeseburger, fries, and signature Frostie contains 710 calories and 29 grams of fat, making it less than an advisably nutritional meal for your child.
Cut out unnecessary calories and fat by selecting from the fast food chain’s updated, fresher, and more heart-healthy menu: A Kids Meal consisting of chicken nuggets, apple slices, and water has only 220 calories and 12 grams of fat. Even opting for just one of the healthier sides or mains will save your child around 200 calories, according to the Wendy’s website.
Like most of the restaurants on this list, Kentucky Fried Chicken isn’t known for its health food, but the selection has widened considerably over the past decade. To satisfy your child’s appetite without spoiling his or her balanced diet, order a KFC Li’l Bucket, consisting of four Original Recipe chicken bites, a side of green beans, a side of apple sauce, and a Capri sun to drink — all for a total of 245 calories and 6 grams of fat, according to the KFC website. Even splurging on mashed potatoes instead of green beans brings the total to just 310 calories and 9 grams of fat.
Consider these options over a Li’l Bucket with a Chicken Little Sandwich, macaroni, applesauce, and 2% milk, which totals out at 650 calories and 26 grams of fat.
In an interesting contrast to McDonald’s, Burger King has eliminated French fries entirely from the children’s menu section of its website. Just like at McDonald’s, they are available upon request, though they do come at a fatty cost.
Next time you’re at Burger King looking for one of the healthier choices off the children’s menu, try a four-piece chicken nugget BK Meal with apple slices and Capri Sun. This combination will round out to 300 calories and 11 grams of fat. Meanwhile, a cheeseburger BK Meal with Satisfries and chocolate milk will come in at 620 calories and 22.5 grams of fat, according to the Burger King website.
Although Arby’s is known and loved for its curly fries and roast beef, the restaurant has also jumped on the healthy choices bandwagon by adding apple sauce and fruit juice choices to its kids menu in recent years.
Here, your child can enjoy the relatively healthy option of a Jr. Roast Beef Sandwich, an apple sauce, and a Capri Sun fruit juice together for just 350 calories and 8 total grams of fat. This is a much more health-conscious option than, say, an order of Prime Cut Chicken Tenders with a side of curly fries and a chocolate milk — a meal consisting of 620 calories and a whopping 26.5 grams of fat. That’s more than half of your child’s recommended daily fat intake, according to Livestrong.