Many experts blame fast-food chains for kids' growing waistlines, but a new study, released on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America, found that children's menus at many popular sit-down restaurants don't offer many healthy kid-friendly options either.
The study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest looked at children's menus at several popular restaurant chains, including Applebee's, Chili's and Outback Steakhouse.
Fried chicken fingers or nuggets were found on each of the 20 kids' menus that were surveyed late last year. A hamburger or cheeseburger appeared on 85 percent of menus, and each one of the menus featured fried potatoes as a side dish, the study found. Extras, like complimentary sugar-laden desserts and sodas, added to the calorie count.
"I think it's shameful that restaurants are encouraging kids to eat this food," said Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director the CSPI. "Parents could simply skip the kids' menu and get a healthy meal for themselves and split it with their kid," he said on GMA.
Although children may prefer burgers and chicken fingers, parents care about what their kids eat, and they need to have a choice, Jacobson said.
An independent laboratory analyzed samples of dishes from seven of the top 20 table-service restaurants, including Applebee's, Chili's, Cracker Barrel, Denny's, the Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
Most of the children's meals contained somewhere between 600 and 1,000 calories, which is half a day's worth of the calories that children ages 4 to 8 should be eating, the study found. The study assumed that children should eat about 1,500 calories a day, and limit the amount of artery-clogging "bad fat" (saturated plus trans-fat) to 17 grams, which is just slightly less than the 20-gram "bad-fat" limit recommended for older children and adults. Here are some of the findings:
Chili's Little Chicken Crispers: Three pieces add up to 360 calories and 8 grams of bad fat, thanks to the partially hydrogenated frying oil used to cook the crispers.
The children's fries double the calorie count to 710 and the bad fat to 15 grams.
Chili's said that it added new choices for children earlier this year.
"In January 2004, we added a grilled chicken platter served with fresh vegetables to our Kids Menu," the restaurant said in a statement.
"Later this spring, the Kids Menu will feature several new entrees along with a choice of side items as an alternative to fries — such as black beans, cinnamon apples, corn on the cob and steamed broccoli. These side item choices are already available to parents and children who request them, and many guests do."
Applebee's Grilled Cheese Sandwich contains 520 calories and 14 grams of bad fat. With fries, it comes to 900 calories, and more than a day's worth of saturated plus trans fat (21 grams) for a child aged 4 to 8. It is about the equivalent of three pork chops.
Applebee's said that it offers children many choices, is looking at new healthy ones, and plans to roll out a Weight Watchers' menu nationwide this summer.
"We provide many options on our children's menu, from spaghetti and tomato sauce to macaroni and cheese," the restaurant said in a statement. "Applebee's will happily make any substitution requested on a kid's meal. Whenever parents [or kids] request vegetables instead of fries, we gladly do so."
Outback Steakhouse offers a quarter-pound Boomerang Cheese Burger, which delivers 470 calories and 18 grams of bad fat, a day's worth. Outback's fries are fried in a beef tallow blend, which gives each order 13 grams of bad fat. The Boomerang plus fries amounts to 840 calories and 31 grams of bad fat. Outback said that it provides many healthy menu choices for all of its guests, including children.
"Our motto is 'No Rules, Just Right' and we are always willing to accommodate customer requests," the restaurant chain said in a statement. "Our kids' menu choices include sirloin steak, burger, ribs, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers. All kids menu entrees come with a beverage and one side item (except the macaroni and cheese). Our side items include steamed veggies, steamed broccoli, sweet potato, baked potato or french fries. In our new menu printing (in stores in May) we will also list the side items next to the kids menu entrees. Currently they are only listed in another portion of the menu."
It's not all bad news though.
Since the study, Red Lobster has unveiled a new kids' menu, which offers children a free appetizer of applesauce or fresh carrot sticks and cucumbers with a ranch dipping sauce. And the new entrees, which include Snow Crab Legs, Grilled Mahi-Mahi, and Grilled Chicken, come with steamed vegetables. The restaurant got rid of the fried shrimp, hamburgers, and cheese sticks, but the ever-popular popcorn shrimp and fries are still on the menu.
Like Red Lobster, Macaroni Grill and Cracker Barrel also give children a choice of fried or grilled chicken. Olive Garden's Spaghetti & Tomato Sauce has just 310 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat. Children are invited to share the adults' garden salad for a grand total or 410 calories, and two grams of saturated fat.