For plenty of parents, one definition of “family vacation” means relaxing the rules of mealtime: no cooking for mom and dad, and a few more treats, chicken nuggets, and child’s-meal toys for the kids.
If you feel guilty indulging your kids’ culinary druthers while on a family road trip, you have some reason to feel better. In the past few years, plenty of chain restaurants have made efforts to make kids’ meals leaner and fresher, adding more fruit, veggies and non-fried options.
A recent study, however, indicates that those kids’ meals still have a long way to go. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, with help from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, analyzed kids’ meals from 41 top chains, and found that the typical combo packs too much heft in terms of calories, salt and fat—sometimes even by adult standards. According to federal guidelines, the typical child between the ages of 4 and 13 needs 1,200 to 1,800 calories for the entire day. (Grown-ups need 1,600 to 2,400.)
Here are the five worst offenders we found at popular chains—s ome of which max out your child’s caloric quota for the entire day. The bright side: there are easy alternatives to make meals leaner, more nutritious, and even keep your child feeling full longer—so you can log in more miles before your next vacation stop.
Denny’s Inside Out Grilled Cheese with french fries: 970 calories
The classic cheese sandwich ranks as one of the fattiest choices we found on most kids’ menus: this version, with fries, total 59 grams of fat. A better choice: Spaghetti with marinara and bread offers just 270 calories and 6 grams of fat, and you can add a side of fresh grapes for just 55 calories.
Chili’s pepperoni pizza with cinnamon apples: 1,020 calories
The pizza on its own has 750 calories and 38 grams of fat, while the innocent-looking cinnamon apples has 270 calories and 11 grams of fat. A better choice: The kid-pleasing corn dog has just 230 calories, and more nutritious sides (under 100 calories) include steamed broccoli, pineapple, and celery with low-fat ranch.
Dairy Queen chicken strips with ranch, fries, Arctic Rush and Dilly Bar: 1,030 calories
Kids’ meals at DQ include a sugary drink (like the slushy-style Arctic Rush) plus an ice cream treat—and really, if you’re stopping here, why would you skip the ice cream? One of the biggest culprits in this meal, however, is that little packet of ranch, which has 230 calories and more than 20 grams of fat. A better choice: Just subbing in fat-free ranch would bring the chicken strip entree down to a more reasonable 290 calories. Add a banana and pass on the slushy, and the total, with that Dilly bar, is a less egregious 620 calories.
Applebee’s two mini cheeseburgers with fries and chocolate milk: 1,360 calories
For growing kids, this chain offers a meal with two mini burgers— a duo that carries 770 calories on its own. Add the side of fries (440 calories) and 1-percent chocolate milk (150 calories) and the meal reaches a whopping 72 grams of fat. A better choice: Try the grilled chicken sandwich, which has 220 calories and 5 grams of fat, or even the kids’ 4-ounce steak, which has just 140 calories and 7 grams of fat; add a side of steamed broccoli (25 calories) or applesauce (90 calories).
Friendly’s cheese quesadilla with strawberry milk and Friend-z Butterfinger sundae: 2,070 calories
This family-friendly chain along the eastern seaboard has gained notoriety for a kids’ meal that exceeds what many adults need for a full day. The cheesy quesadilla weighs in at 890 calories and 60 grams of fat—before you choose the included drink (say, 350 calories, for a 1-percent strawberry milk) and dessert (up to 820, for the Butterfinger sundae). A better choice: Mac ’n’ cheese with a side of mandarin oranges totals just 390 calories, and a classic hot fudge sundae has a more modest 330 calories. And given the restaurant’s focus on dessert, this seems like a great place to skip the beverage and ask for a glass of water instead.