KIDS
December 15, 2016

Kids Meals Down for the (Calorie) Count

Most meals marketed to teens and kids have way more calories than they should. What to look for.

Restaurant meals, with their large portions, liberal use of fat, and freebies like chips and bread push the calories in one meal well over the recommended limit for most adults for an entire day.

Kids’ menus are no different. Findings from a new study say that kid-friendly menu items go over-the-top calorie-wise for children, too.

A third of all children and over 40 percent of teens eat at fast food restaurants on any given day.

A panel of fifteen child nutrition experts looked at the calories in menu items tailored to kids at the top 200 restaurant chains. Their job was to not only measure calories, but come up with guidelines to help children and their parents know how to stay within reasonable calorie limits.

One menu item, a kid-favorite, repeatedly exceeded the calorie guidelines — french fries. There are about 287 calories in an average restaurant serving of fries — about three times the recommended amount. McDonald’s was the only restaurant that served the recommended 100-calorie portion.

“It's important to examine the caloric value of what kids are served because the chances are they will eat all or most of what they are served,” lead author, Dr. Deborah Cohen, a senior medical scientist at the RAND Corporation, said in a statement.

Here are the recommendations that came out of the study:

  • Main dishes for children should not have more than 300 calories.
  • A serving of fried potatoes should provide no more than 100 calories.
  • Soups, appetizers, and snacks for children should not contain more than 150 calories per serving.
  • Vegetables and salads that include added sauces should not exceed 150 calories.
  • Unflavored milk served with kids’ meals should provide no more than 110 calories.
  • An entire kids’ meal should not exceed 600 calories.
  • Kids can have as much fruits and vegetables as they want, as long as they have no added fat or sauces.
  • To be in line with these guidelines, a kids’ hamburger or a serving of mac and cheese should contain no more than 300 calories, yet the researchers found that the average number of calories in a child-sized burger was 465 and 442 in mac and cheese, or roughly one and a half times the recommended calories.

    The panel’s findings come at a time when most restaurants are gearing up for mandatory calorie labeling on menus in 2017, giving restaurateurs the chance to decrease portion sizes on kids’ menus so they are more in line with children’s calorie needs.

    Children eat out often. A third of all children and over 40 percent of teens eat at fast food restaurants on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children under the age of 12 tend to eat what’s put before them, according to the researchers, and parents generally don’t have the information to make decisions about how much to allow their child to eat or save to take home.

    Restaurants are in a position to promote children’s health and participate in the fight against childhood obesity by taking the recommendations of child nutrition experts and adjusting their kids’ menu offerings. Parents can support them by making their children aware of the excessive calories in many offerings and the weight gain and other health consequences that taking in more calories than you burn will bring.

    Not only would this step be beneficial for parents and kids, but it could be good for business for restaurants.

    The study is published in Nutrition Today.

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