Home DESTACADOS Healthiest And Unhealthiest Fast Food Kids Meals

Healthiest And Unhealthiest Fast Food Kids Meals

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Fast food outlets do offer nutritious choices for children.

Fast food outlets do offer nutritious choices for children. Below is a comparison of the healthiest and least healthy options available at 10 popular fast food restaurants.

When you think of a nutritious meal, fast food burgers and fries aren’t the first things that come to mind. However, several top fast food chains, including Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Subway, now claim to offer healthier alternatives for children.

Dedicated Healthnews analysis involving hours of navigating fast food websites has produced a list ranking kids’ meals based on their calorie content. For this analysis, we selected the kids’ meal option with the lowest calorie count from each outlet.

Wendy’s stands out as the frontrunner, offering a meal with just 246 calories, while Burger King ranks last with meals averaging 475 calories. A typical healthier meal for children usually includes milk, chicken nuggets, and a side of applesauce or fresh fruit.

Nuggets and other menu items can vary greatly in nutritional value, which is why our nutrition scientist Lauryna Nelkine has examined the specifics of each component in these kids’ meals beyond just comparing calories.

For instance, choosing apples over fries is a no-brainer when it comes to better nutrition and fewer calories. But it’s not always straightforward. With the shift towards offering low-fat milk instead of juice or soda in kids’ meals, it’s interesting to note that milk — while higher in calories than many small sodas — brings significant nutritional benefits that soda lacks. That is why, for this study, the milk option was included in the healthy meal calorie count if it was available on the menu.

Calorie count ranking

Here’s our tour of fast food options, ranging from the higher-calorie selections to those excelling in low-calorie offerings.

Ranking # Outlet Healthiest meal calorie count Nutritional value
1 Wendy’s 246 Lower saturated fats (2.9 g/portion) with whole fruit choices but the highest sodium (1,005 mg)
2 Chick-fil-A 250 Highest protein content at 17 g/portion
3 Subway 295 Minimal saturated fats (1.5 g/meal) and lowest sodium
4 Popeyes 340 Rich in saturated fats at 6 g
5 Quizno’s 345 Peaks in saturated fats with 7.5 g
6 KFC 395 Tied for highest protein at 17 g/portion, with lower saturated fats (2.5g/portion)
7 McDonald’s 395 Features whole fruits
8 Dairy Queen 435 Protein-rich at 14 g/portion, yet carries high saturated fats (5.5 g)
9 Sonic Drive-In 435 Includes applesauce, high in sugar, low in fiber; a burger meal is less nutritious than its chicken counterparts
10 Burger King 475 Similar to above, with applesauce and sugary juice; includes onion rings, an additional source of saturated fats

#10 Burger King

Burger King offers a combo of 4-piece Chicken Nuggets, value onion rings, Mott’s applesauce, and apple juice totaling 475 calories (without the BBQ dipping sauce).

Burger King

Known for its bold flavors, Burger King’s meal is a bit on the heavier side, primarily due to the onion rings, which add extra calories with limited nutritional benefits.

#9 Sonic Drive-In

Sonic presents a Jr. patty, applesauce, and milk, amounting to 435 calories.

Sonic Drive-In

While the meal brings a touch of sweetness and calcium, the Jr. patty’s processed nature nudges us towards seeking more whole food options. It contains additives, higher sodium levels, and potentially less nutritional value compared to whole, minimally processed meats.

#8 Dairy Queen

At Dairy Queen, you’ll find 2-piece Chicken Strips, applesauce, and low-fat milk totaling 435 calories.

Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen, often associated with frozen treats, offers a meal that’s a step towards healthier eating with lean protein, though the overall calorie count is still a consideration. This ranking does not include the Kid’s Cone ice cream, a DQ classic that adds an additional 160 calories to the meal.

#7 McDonald’s

McDonald’s brings to the table a 4-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal with apple slices, fries, and milk, at 395 calories.

McDonalds

As a giant in the fast food world, McDonald’s attempt to balance indulgence with nutrition is seen here, though the fries somewhat tilt the scale.

#6 KFC

KFC serves a 5-piece Nugget Kids’ Meal with applesauce and milk for 395 calories.

KFC

While we have some lean protein and a serving of fruit, the nuggets come with a coating deep fried in oil that’s less than ideal from a health perspective.

#5 Quizno’s

Quizno’s offers a Triple Cheese kids meal with applesauce and milk, totaling 345 calories.

Quiznos

As a place for toasted subs, Quizno’s meal stands out for its use of wheat bread, making it lower in calories. And thanks, Quizno’s, for offering something different from chicken nuggets.

#4 Popeyes

Popeyes offers a 4-piece Nuggets meal accompanied by applesauce and apple juice, totaling 340 calories (quite the apple-solute overload, right?).

Popeyes

Renowned for its Louisiana-flavored chicken, this Popeyes meal presents a lighter option. However, choosing concentrated juice over a more nutritious beverage option like milk could mean missing out on essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

#3 Subway

Subway’s Veggie Delite, paired with milk and GoGo squeeZ Apple Apple fruit pouch, comes in at 295 calories.

Subway

Known for its fresh ingredients, Subway boasts plenty of veggies and minimal sauce. It’s a good option for parents who want to include plant-based meals in their kids’ diets. After years of being at the forefront of ratings as the best fast food option for kids, Subway has taken a step back this time, allowing two other fast food chains to take the lead.

#2 Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A offers 5-count Grilled Nuggets, a small fruit cup, and milk, totaling just 250 calories.

Chick-fil-A

Renowned for its chicken, this outlet’s basic meal pairs lean, comparatively lower in calories protein, with the natural fruit sweetness.

#1 Wendy’s

The lowest in calories yet the typical choice is Wendy’s kids’ meal — nuggets, accompanied by apple bites and milk, which amounts to 246 calories (just 4 calories fewer than Chick-fil-A’s offering).

Wendys

Beyond offering fresh, never-frozen burgers to children, Wendy’s is dedicated to supporting young lives. Launched in 2004 by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Wendy’s Kids program focuses on finding adoptive families for children in foster care.

A word from a nutritionist

These chains demonstrate that it’s possible to satisfy our youngest diners without calorie excess. However, the bulk of meals essentially boil down to chicken nuggets, applesauce or apple slices, and a cup of milk. This prompted us to examine their nutritional values more closely with our nutrition scientist, Lauryna Nelkine.

Some fast food chains did not provide detailed nutritional information for each meal on our list. As a result, we relied on publicly available databases, which may account for some minor discrepancies.

Protein

Protein is essential for children’s growth. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests daily protein needs vary by age:

  • 13 grams for ages 1–3
  • 19 grams for ages 4–8
  • 34 grams for ages 9–13
  • 52 grams for boys 14–18, and 46 grams for girls 14–18

Looking at fast food kids’ menus, Chick-fil-A, KFC, and Sonic Drive-In offer the most protein, with 17, 17, and 14 grams respectively. These amounts nearly fulfill the daily protein requirements for kids up to age 8 and make a significant contribution for older children as well.

However, it’s better to get protein from a variety of sources to ensure a mix of essential nutrients. While some fast food items may help meet protein needs, these meals often come with less healthy extras like batter fried in oil, which increases calories and fat intake from less nutritious sources. Moreover, excessive consumption of fried foods may lead to the formation of harmful substances linked to cancer risk.

Unlike homemade chicken, fast food options might include additives and preservatives that could upset sensitive stomachs.

Saturated fats

Both adults and children should aim to eat foods low in saturated fats. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 advise consuming less than 10% of daily calories from saturated fats. For a moderately active 4-year-old child, this equates to less than 140 kcal or less than 16 grams of saturated fats per day.

Among fast food options, Sonic Drive-In, Quizno’s, and Popeyes have the highest amounts of saturated fats, with 5.5, 7.5, and 6 grams respectively. This means these meals could provide up to half of the daily limit for saturated fats.

On the other hand, Subway, Wendy’s, and KFC kids’ menus are lower in saturated fats, with 1.5, 2.9, and 2.5 grams, making them healthier choices in comparison to other chains on our list.

Sodium

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, with children advised to consume even less.

Wendy’s kids’ meal contains the highest sodium amount (1,005 mg), while Subway’s children’s meal has the lowest. High sodium intake is discouraged for both children and adults due to its potential to elevate blood pressure. Frequent consumption of high-sodium foods may also increase the risk of heart disease.

Foods high in table salt (sodium) can alter taste preferences, leading children to favor processed foods rich in sodium, fat, and sugar over nutritious whole foods.

Fiber

A balanced diet should include a variety of fruits and vegetables. These plant foods provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber — all essential for children’s optimal health. While some items on kids’ menus in these fast food chains offer fewer calories, they are likely to be high in sugar and low in fiber.

Parents should prioritize meals that contain whole fruit options, like those offered by Wendy’s and McDonald’s.

Drinks

Children should primarily consume water or unsweetened tea for hydration while limiting sugary juices that can contribute to tooth decay and excessive sugar consumption.

Milk is another nutritious choice available. Even though it’s higher in calories than water or juice, milk delivers essential nutrients like calcium, protein, vitamin B, and iodine, which are crucial for growth, bone development, and muscle development, and are often deficient in children’s diets. The emphasis should be on nutritional value rather than calorie content.

Parents should prioritize nutritious options. However, it’s equally important to recognize that fast food should be an occasional indulgence only rather than a staple for nutrition. Enjoyed sparingly, these meals won’t significantly impact a child’s health, as long as their overall diet is balanced and rich in essential nutrients.

Worrying excessively about every small unhealthy component can detract from the joy of sharing a rare fast food treat with your family. The key is choosing meals that combine enjoyment with health benefits, ensuring that our kids get the best of both worlds.

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