Between tricky restaurant choices, finicky eaters, and the desire to serve healthy, wholesome meals, taking the kids out to eat can seem too much trouble for what it's worth. We're giving you the inside scoop on healthier kids' meal choices and some easy steps on how to lighten up those classic kid-favorites.
Kids' Menu Choices
Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States—and shows no signs of slowing down. With many families choosing to dine out on a regular basis, helping your child make healthy choices outside of your home is essential. With the help of Cooking Light's Nutrition Director Brierley Horton, MS, RD, we've reviewed 10 popular chain restaurants throughout the country and we're giving you the inside scoop on what your little one should order to keep calories, fat, and sodium in check.
Thumbs Up: Half Kids Grilled Cheese, Kids Vegetarian Tomato Soup
The kids' menu at Panera may seem unhealthy (and super limited) at first—many of the items on the list contain over 500mg of sodium per item, Horton notes. But the key to maximizing your child's meal is to use the chain's customization to your benefit. The kids' menu grilled cheese is a solid option. Swap out white bread for a whole wheat and you'll cut the high sodium in half. Pair half of the sandwich with a cup of the kids' tomato soup (minus the croutons) and the meal won't exceed 500 calories and should come in at under 1000mg of sodium.
Thumbs Down: Signature Mac & Cheese
There's no getting around it—one of Panera's signature menu items is chock-full of salt. 470 calories isn't bad, but the whopping 1230mg of sodium in it is almost half of your daily allowance, and way too much for a child. In this dish, 55 percent of the calories come from fat, and there are 13 grams of saturated fat. If your child really begs for it, make a healthier version at home, or at the very least, split an order of this mac and cheese between multiple children.
Chili's Bar and Grill
Thumbs Up: Chicken Bites and Fresh Sides
We're big fans of the ample healthy sides available for your child at Chili's, with great options like freshly steamed broccoli, corn on the cob, pineapple, and mandarin oranges. They all pair well with Chili's kids' chicken bites (a lighter take on chicken tenders) that have just 290 calories, 550mg of sodium, and only 2 grams of saturated fat.
Thumbs Down: Cheesy Chicken Pasta
This kids' entree is loaded with cheese sauce, chunks of breaded chicken, and a whole lot of salt—1780mg to be exact. The 660 calories in this dish alone isn't doing your child any favors, and you'd be better off ordering the chain's Kraft macaroni and cheese since it's lower in calories (430) and sodium (940mg).
Thumbs Up: Kids' Mini Hamburger
Forget the cheese and choose Applebee’s single mini hamburger featuring 100% fresh ground beef for 330 calories, 680mg of sodium, and 14 grams of filling protein. This burger is satiating on its own, so skip the fries and pair it with steamed broccoli for just 25 calories. Other solid options for hungry little ones are the 4oz Sirloin Steak, an excellent main at just 140 calories, 210mg of sodium, and just 2.5g of saturated fat, and the apple dippers with yogurt, a 90-calorie appetizer that would be great for the kids to share. Plus, Applebee's Strawberry Sundae Shooter is a solid dessert option for those with a sweet tooth—it has just 290 calories.
Thumbs Down: Chicken Mac 'n Cheese
The thought of a small child chowing through this salt-bomb is almost too much—there's over 2,310mg of sodium lurking in this macaroni dish. Half of the 650 calories in this dish comes from fat, and there's 20g of saturated fat. Enough said. The regular order of macaroni and cheese is a far better choice at 300 calories, 650mg of sodium, and 2.5g of saturated fat.
Uno Chicago Grill
Thumbs Up: Safari Nuggets
There’s no guilt in choosing Uno Chicago Grill's oven-baked chicken nuggets for your child. One serving supplies a reasonable 250 calories and 12 grams of fat (only 2.5 grams are from sat fat). Compared to many other items on the kiddie menu, it’s lower in sodium at just 460mg. Plus it dishes up 40% of the daily value for iron. Round out your child’s meal with a side of steamed broccoli, red grapes, or brown rice for extra fiber and nutrients.
Thumbs Down: Kids' Cheese Pizza
Unfortunately, heading to Uno's for pizza might not be the best option if you're looking for a healthy meal—the kids' cheese pizza has 600 calories, 21g of fat, and 1,230mg of sodium, which is a hefty price to pay for such a limited serving (you can definitely forget any toppings). And we suggest sticking to the Safari Nuggets instead of the kids' Chicken Pops: these babies are loaded with a staggering 1,760mg of sodium, 680 calories, and 44g of fat.
California Pizza Kitchen
Thumbs Up: Fusilli Pasta With Olive Oil
It might not be exciting, but this is one of the safest options on the menu—it has a manageable 480 calories and just 520mg of sodium. If your child is particularly hungry, add grilled chicken breast or a side of baby broccoli to the dish. Another manageable meal is CPKids' Grilled Chicken Breast, which comes with broccoli as a side, and has just 120mg more of sodium—and only 295 calories.
Thumbs Down: Mushroom Pepperoni Sausage Pizza
Nearly all of the kids' pizza options at CPK are way too high in sodium. The mushroom pepperoni sausage pie is the worst offender, though, with 1,430mg of sodium and 610 calories. Another thumbs down? The Curly Mac N' Cheese—it has 820 calories, 760mg of sodium, 28g of saturated fat.
Thumbs Up: Children's Lobster Roll
Great news! Red Lobster’s Kids’ Cove Menu has more than a few seafood options that are perfect for a children's meal. Top honors go to the children's lobster roll, which is a redeeming, tasty option at 310 calories, 470mg of sodium, and 9g of saturated fat. Yes, the saturated fat is a tad high—but a way around that is to ask for a smaller serving of mayonnaise on the roll itself, Horton says. Other good options include the children's tilapia and the kids' broiled fish.
Thumbs Down: Chicken Fingers
Word to the wise: Stay away from the chicken fingers, which are packed with 1,410mg of sodium and nearly 600 calories. And while the first drink you should reach for is water, Red Lobster's smoothies, slushies, and lemonades are definitely not healthy choices. All of them all pour upwards of 250 calories, and the biggest calorie bomb is the innocent-sounding Frozen Strawberry Lemonade, which clocks in at 380 calories.
Thumbs Up: Grilled Chicken and Broccoli
After a recent overhaul of their kids' menu, Friendly's has a few options that you should feel good about ordering. The best of the bunch is the grilled chicken and broccoli, a fantastic option at just 330 calories and a manageable 690mg of sodium. Another winner is the Cheesywich and apple slices, which is a slightly more indulgent option at 480 calories. The best part about Friendly's kids' menu are their fresh sides: mixed vegetables, apple slices, or broccoli are our favorites.
Thumbs Down: Quesadillies
Strange product name aside, Friendly's Quesadillies are one of the biggest offenders on this list. One serving has almost 1200 calories, 30g of saturated fat, 70g of carbohydrates, and a dizzying 2,960mg of sodium—nearly twice the recommended intake of what a child should have in a day, Horton says.
Thumbs Up: Turkey Breast Mini for Kids
No list of healthy kids meals would be complete without Subway. Some consider Subway to be fast food, but the customization options—as well as the chain's Fresh Fit program—are too good to pass up. Ordering for your child is super easy at Subway, as most nutrition information is readily available at the sandwich counter and you can choose which ingredients should make it into the meal. Subway's kids' menu is just as great, with four different sub builds that you can choose from, served with a juice box and apple slices. Our favorite is the turkey breast mini sub, as it's substantial enough without being indulgent. It has about 200 calories and 600mg of sodium with basic toppings.
Thumbs Down: Black Forest Ham Mini
This option is still under 300 calories, but out of the four kids' meals at Subway, this one packs the most sodium at 810mg.
The Cheesecake Factory
*Disclaimer: Cooking Light was unable to secure full nutritional data on menu items at the Cheesecake Factory.
Thumbs Up: Fresh Basil, Tomato and Cheese Flatbread
The Cheesecake Factory is a favorite for many families across America—but the issue is that the chain doesn't provide full nutritional information for items on their very expansive menu, including their kids' menu. The Cheesecake Factory has a reputation for being one of the most unhealthy chains in America, so keeping that in mind, Horton scanned calorie counts to determine which could be the healthiest. The Fresh Basil, Tomato and Cheese Flatbread, kids' grilled salmon entreé, edamame appetizer, and the Dynamite Shrimp came out on top (but, again, we're solely basing this on calories since that's the only information we have).
Thumbs Down: Louisiana Chicken Pasta
Some of the worst offenders at the Cheesecake Factory are their pasta offerings (some have even made headlines). We don't have the full nutritional information on this pasta dish, but the calorie count alone scared us enough—2,210 calories in just one serving. That's more than what's recommended for the entire day, and with a laundry list of ingredients (parmesan crusted chicken, mushrooms, peppers, onions, oodles of pasta, and a "spicy New Orleans sauce"), we're betting the full nutritional picture is even worse.