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."