By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD
As a Dietitian, I’m always bothered by the fact that kids menus consist of a bunch of fried foods and starchy pasta options. Restaurants are setting kids up to fail by not offering them any healthy options. But in the past few years, there’s been a trend in the fast food industry to care more about nutrition and health and offer healthier options for children.
The standard children’s meal at almost any fast food restaurant now gives the choice to add apple slices, yogurt or milk in place of soda and fries. Unfortunately, fast food options at places like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King still include plenty of missteps. For instance, all three chains offers juices that are loaded with sugar and processed chicken nuggets, which are breaded and full of unnecessary additives. While these alternatives are lower in calories and include more nutrients than the original fried offerings, they are still not the best foods for kids to be eating several times a week.
With that being said, some fast food places are definitely getting it right. Knowing where to go for healthy food choices for kids is just as important as knowing what to order. Visit any of these five chains and look for these meal offerings to ensure that your child is getting the best ingredients and learning how to choose healthy options.
Subway offers a Fresh Fit For Kids menu, which includes 4 varieties of mini sandwiches that come with apple slices and plain milk. I wouldn’t recommend the Roast Beef Sandwich because it’s a very fat meat with a high saturated fat content. Instead, opt for the Veggie Delite mini sub (just 285 calories with apple slices and a low-fat milk) or the Turkey Breast Mini Sub with a side of apples and a low-fat milk for a total of 315 calories. If your child isn’t a fan of milk, they can opt for water.
For teenagers who need something a little more substantial, order the 6 inch version of these subs or the oven-roasted or rotisserie chicken subs. All come in under 250 calories and contain plenty of great lean protein.
Panera’s kid’s menu motto is “At Panera, kids shouldn’t have to imagine what’s in their food.” With fresh ingredients that you can see, parents can feel good about ordering almost anything off the kids menu, including soups, salads, sandwiches and yogurt. Some great choices are the turkey chili, autumn squash soup, tomato soup, chicken noodle soup, any salad or a turkey sandwich. Each option is less than 300 calories and includes healthy protein or veggies. And, my favorite part is that all of these offering (minus the turkey sandwich) are available for adults. Panera doesn’t believe that kids should only choose from less nutritious junk foods.
Chipotle recently removed all antibiotics in their meats. and they are committed to serving whole ingredients that you can see and taste. While Chipotle’s portions are sometimes larger than necessary, they have some portion friendly options for children. Kid’s meal at Chipotle includes two small tacos with lean proteins like chicken or beans, brown rice, lots of veggie toppings, fruit and milk or water. The best option for kids is 2 hard tacos, filled with chicken, black beans, and veggies and a low-fat plain milk, which comes in under 500 calories. Definitely lay off the sour cream, cheese and chips to avoid unneeded calories.
Hear me out—while Starbucks is known for sugar-laden drinks and pastries, it also offers some great healthy grab and go options. They don’t have a children’s menu, but they offer some great healthy sandwiches and breakfast options. For breakfast, you can pick up a delicious whole grain oatmeal with fresh fruit or a spinach, feta, and egg white wrap. Don’t think your kid will eat spinach? Try one of their yogurt and fruit cups. For lunch, there are plenty of sandwich options, like Turkey Pesto Panini or Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbread. When you’re in a bind and the only thing around is Starbucks, there are definitely healthy options for both adults and children.
Au Bon Pain
Au Bon Pain is another spot that doesn’t have a kid’s menu but has plenty of great nourishing options. Like Panera, Au Bon Pain offers plenty of healthy soups, salads and sandwiches. The best options for kids are the Harvest Turkey Wrap, the Veggie and Hummus Wrap, and Turkey and Swiss Sandwich. They also offer plenty of veggie-filled soup options, like 12 Vegetable, Southwest Tortilla and Turkey Chili.
With this list of healthy fast food options, you’ll never find yourself ordering chicken fingers and fries for your little one again!