The #1 Healthiest Fast-Food Kids Meal to Order, According to a Nutritionist
Most American Children Are Deficient In These Four Major Nutrients, Says New StudyOrdering off the Kids menu seems like a good way to cut back on calories, and it is, since the portions are going to be smaller. So you'll reap those benefits if you're an adult looking for a lighter meal from your favorite fast-food restaurant. However, when it comes to your child's health, the options may not be as healthy. Since kids eat smaller portion sizes anyway, a healthful fast-food meal is all about the proper balance of macro- and micro-nutrients (think calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein).
Sodium is a major issue on the Kids menu, as most fast foods geared toward the youngest customers—like pasta, grilled cheese, fries, and chicken nuggets—are super salty.
"Chronic inflammation from a high sugar or high salt diet in childhood contributes to chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease over time," says nutritionist Tammy Lakatos Shames. "And not only does sugar cause inflammation, but also it provides calories without nutrients, and those calories can add up quickly and contribute to weight gain."
While average amounts of sodium actually have benefits for kids' health, like boosting their electrolytes for adequate hydration, anything outside of moderate consumption of sodium is worrisome as they age. Excess of sodium increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure later in life, so it's a good idea to begin limiting its intake at an early age, says dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus.
"The US Dietary Guidelines recommend that kids limit sodium consumption to 1,200 to 2,300 milligrams a day, depending on their age," she says. However, the reality is currently very different. "Average intakes for children ages 1 and older is 3,393 milligrams per day, with a range of about 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams per day, so we have work to do when it comes to controlling sodium, especially for kids."
Fast food for kids is also often loaded with the thing that youngsters crave most: sugar. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake for kids to 24 grams or 6 teaspoons per day. However, kids on average consume approximately 3 times that amount, says Harris-Pincus. "So it's important to include more nutrient-dense foods in their diets, primarily plant foods, to address nutritional needs for growth and development while maintaining a healthy weight," she says.
"The easiest ways to avoid excess salt and sugar is to avoid fried foods, skip the soda and shakes, go light on cheese and condiments, and don't add more salt to meals," says Lakat0s Shames.
To build a healthy-ish fast-food meal for your child, look for lean proteins like grilled chicken, a simple burger, or a turkey sandwich. Whenever possible, round out the main dish with veggies or a side salad, and always try to include some fruit on the side. A serving of dairy, such as 1% milk, is also preferred over juice—even the 100% one, since those are still high in sugars, says Pincus-Harris.
That being said, here's the healthiest order you can find on a fast-food menu for kids.
The healthiest fast-food meal for kids: Chick-fil-A's Grilled Nuggets Kid's Meal
The grilled nuggets are a rare find, says Harris-Pincus, which is why this is her pick for the healthiest Kids meal. The meal also includes a fruit cup and 1% milk, so it really hits all the nutritional spots, she says.
"This is pretty close to the USDA's nutrition guidelines for kids, and is not a bad choice for a fast-food meal," she says.
The milk has calcium to help boost strong bone health in children and the fresh fruit adds fiber and antioxidants, as well as vitamin C to keep immunity high, so it's an excellent option for a lunch or quick dinner.
"Add in a dipping sauce such as the Honey Roasted BBQ to bring extra flavor to the grilled nuggets," Harris-Pincus says. A small dunk for each nugget does the trick in terms of flavor and while it adds a bit of sugar, it's nothing worrisome. And don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest restaurant news delivered straight to your inbox.