Healthy Fast Food “Happy Meals”
Is there such a thing?
By Bitsy’s RD Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD and Mom
As parents, we have all been told that “fast food” is bad and that we should never order “happy meals” for our kids. Well, here at Bitsy’s we know for sure that convenience and low cost trump dietary advice all too often. We also know children are patronizing these establishments all too frequently… and moderation in all foods consumed is a difficult goal to attain. Bitsy’s understands that parents not only need more choices but also smarter options from which to choose. After conducting a little research, we have some good news to share—the best way to guarantee the selection of some sort of healthy option in 2013/2014 is to rely on the Kid’s Meal Menu at fast food establishments. Working in tandem, the restaurant and food industries have devised standards to improve the food choices marketed and served to kids under the age of 12. These two plans are the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell Program and the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Participation in either program is voluntary, but they aim to set limits on calories, fat, sodium and sugar…among other criteria.
Some pitfalls remain such as the meal’s sodium contents totaling more than half of a child’s maximum sodium intake—1200 mg for lunch out of a 2000 mg daily sodium limit. The options remain to be low in fiber options—a burger and bun has one gram of fiber while being highly processed and not necessarily that filling. In addition, actual ingredients are not posted; only nutrition facts. We all know that nutrition facts can be manipulated to appear healthy, but what do these foods really contain? What oil is being used? Is the bread made with HFCS? Are GMOs included in the breading?
With all of this said, please keep in mind that educating yourself and making your own decisions regarding food and health is your best approach. Here are Bitsy’s RD’s healthier “happy meals” compared with the kids’ meal that are less “child friendly.” You may want to consider the healthier options when hitting the drive through at your local fast food place.
Fast Food Choices:
Subway Fresh Fit for Kids turkey on whole wheat bread (either sliced bread or the 4” roll), apple slices and low fat milk. Thumbs up to Subway for offering water and low fat milk as options rather than chocolate milk! Subway is the only company that even puts water on their Fresh Fit menu. The turkey sandwich is most similar to your homemade sandwich. You may need to convince your kids to get sliced bread instead of a roll!
But beware of sodium content at Subway. Despite being on the Fresh Fit menu, the Subway club contains approximately 1200 mg sodium before you add the sides—apple slices and low fat milk. Where as the club sandwich has twice the calories and twice the salt of the Fresh Fit turkey sandwich.
Burger King‘s Kid’s Meal with chicken nuggets (4 pieces), apples slices and skim milk. Parents…please specify the skim milk; otherwise, you will likely be given low fat chocolate milk. Skim milk comprises half the calories, half the carbohydrates and half the sugar. While low fat milk is appropriate for children, Burger King only serves the low fat milk in chocolate. The 4-piece chicken nuggets are equal to a hamburger in terms of protein but contain less calories and sodium. So opt for the nuggets. However, if your child wants the 6-piece nugget meal, opt for the hamburger instead.
Please understand that all kids’ meals are not created with heart health in mind. Burger King’s Kid’s Meal choices also include a cheeseburger with French fries, low fat chocolate milk and a chocolate chip cookie!
This option registers at 890 calories. The cheeseburger and the cookie alone contain 9 grams of saturated fat while the goal is to keep each food item at less than 2 grams of saturated fat. And the sodium content is 1235 mg—60% of the daily sodium limit. This is a “sometimes” only meal choice—definitely not for anyone who is eating fast food daily.
McDonald’s Happy Meals, unfortunately, make for a totally different story! If possible, McDonald’s is the one place to steer clear of “happy meals” and choose from the regular menu. McDs automatically includes French fries. But if you and your kids love to eat their fries, choose the happy meal with chicken nuggets, apple slices, low fat milk and half-size fries.
And yikes—the McDonald’s Mighty Kids Meal is offered with a McDouble cheeseburger, apple slices, French fries and even a sugar-sweetened soft drink. The McDouble has twice the calories (390) of a Happy Meal Chicken McNuggets (190). This option costs more and is not a favorite choice of this RD for our tots. Just so you know, there was a policy established in the past year… McDonald’s happy meals automatically must include a fruit and a low fat dairy, but these options can easily be swapped out; your child can even end up getting a soda.
If you find yourself and your family frequenting fast food establishments at least once a week, you may want to seek out some of the fast food places that pride themselves on whole ingredients or have meal options with the ingredients listed. Chick-fil-A offers a grilled chicken strips/nuggets meal (advertised to be made of whole breast meat) with barbecue sauce, a fruit cup and low fat milk. Starbucks markets a protein pack, which is another quick and easy option for kids; it includes fruit, a hard-boiled egg, nut butter and a whole grain mini pita. And finally, if you have the option of going to Chipotle, your children may want to try the soft corn tortilla with chicken, black beans, fajita veggies, brown rice and chips.
Again, the point here is to stay educated…and consider how often your child is eating these convenience foods. Is it once every couple of months… or twice a week? What does your child’s dietary intake look like the rest of the day? There is always room to eat all foods, but for the majority of the time…do think about quality ingredients and nutrient density as well as making the eating experiences positive!
For moms’ and dads’ health education:
For healthy children:
For creating your family’s own healthy habits:
- Healthy Habits Book and Program
- Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook Book
Watch Bitsy’s RD Talk Healthy “Happy Meals” on Fox and Friends!