Eating out invariably raises a number of tricky questions: sit-down or drive-thru? Burgers or pizza? Thin or stuffed crust? And if you're dining with your family, add the biggest question of all: Will the food we eat today bring a fatter tomorrow for our kids? And fewer tomorrows for the rest of us?
So the choice between McDonald’s and Burger King shouldn’t be based solely on whether you're more terrified by the scary clown Ronald McDonald or that creepy masked Burger King. Choosing one over the other could be the difference of hundreds of calories in a meal, more than 10 unnecessary pounds over the course of a year, and countless health woes over the course of a lifetime.
During more than a year of research, my coauthor and I discovered vast dietary discrepancies between many of the places Americans love to eat most. So to help you separate the commendable from the deplorable, we put 43 major chain restaurants under the nutritional microscope — both for your benefit, and that of your family.
How did we judge the restaurants? We started by calculating the average number of calories per kid entrée, then rewarded restaurants for having healthy adult options that would appeal to the young palette, and for providing healthy vegetable sides and non-soda drink options. Finally, we docked points for those restaurants still harboring nasty trans fats.
The result is a Restaurant Report Card that holds each eating establishment fully accountable for the fare they’re serving up to all of us — moms, dads, kids, teens, and twentysomethings — along with a survival strategy for making it through any meal unscathed.
Did your favorite restaurant make the grade?
Chick-fil-A excels in every category we tested for. With a slew of low-calorie sandwiches, the country’s “healthiest” chicken nugget, a variety of solid sides like fresh fruit and soup that can be substituted into any meal, and nutritional brochures readily available for perusing at each location, Chick-fil-A earns the award for America’s Healthiest Chain Restaurant (for kids, for the adults who drive them there, plus anybody else wise enough to make it their fast food choice).
Your Survival Strategy: Even the smartest kid in the class can still fail a test, so be on your toes at all times, even at Chik-fil-A. Skip salads with ranch or Caesar dressings, any sandwich with bacon, and avoid milkshakes at all costs.
A menu based on lean protein and vegetables is always going to score well in our book. With more than half a dozen sandwiches under 300 calories, plus a slew of soups and healthy sides to boot, Subway can satisfy even the pickiest eater without breaking the caloric bank.
But, despite what Jared may want you to believe, Subway is not nutritionally infallible: Those rosy calorie counts posted on the menu boards include neither cheese nor mayo (add 160 calories per 6-inch sub) and some of the toasted subs, like the Meatball Marinara, contain hefty doses of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.
Your Survival Strategy: Cornell researchers have discovered a “health halo” at Subway, which refers to the tendency to reward yourself or your kid with chips, cookies, and large soft drinks because the entrée is healthy. Avoid the halo, and all will be well.
With more than a dozen healthy vegetable sides and lean meats like turkey and roast sirloin on the menu, the low-cal, high-nutrient possibilities at Boston Market are endless. But with nearly a dozen calorie-packed sides and fatty meats like dark meat chicken and meat loaf, it’s almost as easy to construct a lousy meal.
Your Survival Strategy: There are three simple steps to nutritional salvation: 1) Start with turkey, sirloin, or rotisserie chicken. 2) Add two noncreamy, nonstarchy vegetable sides. 3) Ignore all special items, such as pot pie and nearly all of the sandwiches.
Though not blessed with an abundance of healthy options, Mickey D’s isn’t burdened with any major calorie bombs, either. Kid standards like McNuggets and cheeseburgers are both in the acceptable 300-calorie range.
Your Survival Strategy: Apple Dippers and 2% milk with a small entrée makes for a pretty decent meal-on-the-go. McDonald’s quintessential Happy Meal® makes this possible — just beware the usual French fries and soda pitfalls. Adults should go for a Quarter Pounder without cheese.
Domino’s suffers the same pitfalls of any other pizza purveyor: too much cheese, bread, and greasy toppings. If you don’t order carefully, you might bag your child a pizza with more than 350 calories per slice. To its credit, Domino’s does keep the trans fat off the pizza, and it also offers the lowest-calorie thin crust option out there.
Your Survival Strategy: Stick with the Crunchy Thin Crust pizzas sans sausage and pepperoni. If your must order meat, make sure it's ham. And whenever possible, try to sneak on a vegetable or two per pie.
BK has only four legitimate kids’ entrées on the menu, and none of them — French Toast Sticks, hamburger, mac and cheese, chicken tenders — are particularly healthy. And while the recent addition of Apple Fries provides a much-needed healthy side alternative for kids, the menu is still sullied with trans fats.
BK pledged to follow in the wake of nearly every other chain restaurant and remove trans fats from the menu by the end of 2008, but so far, we’ve seen little action.
Your Survival Strategy: Adults can sign on for the Whopper Junior and a Garden Salad, and escape with only 365 calories. The best kids’ meal? A 4-piece Chicken Tenders®, applesauce or Apple Fries, and water or milk. Beyond that, there is little hope of escaping unscathed.
We applaud Chipotle’s commitment to high-quality produce and fresh meats, but even the most pristine ingredients can’t dampen the damage wrought by the massive portion sizes served up here. The lack of options for kids means young eaters are forced to tussle with one of Chipotle’s massive burritos or taco platters, which can easily top 1,000 calories.
Your Survival Strategy: Stick to the crispy tacos or burrito bowls, or saw a burrito in half.
Applebee’s, IHOP, Olive Garden, Outback, Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday’s
These titans of the restaurant industry are among the last national chains to not provide nutritional information on their dishes. Even after years of communication with their representatives, we still here the same old excuses: it’s too pricey, it’s too time-consuming, it’s impossible to do accurately because their food is so fresh. Our response is simple: If every other chain restaurant in the country can do it, then why can’t they?
Your Survival Strategy: Write letters, make phone calls, beg, scream, and plead for these restaurants to provide nutritional information on all of their products. Here are the phone numbers for each of the restaurants that refuse to tell us the truth!
Applebees: email, 888-59APPLE; IHOP: email, 888-240-6055 (press 1 for Guest Visit issues); Olive Garden: email, 800-331-2729; Outback: email, 757-493-7662; Red Lobster: email, 800-LOBSTER; T.G.I. Friday's: email, 800-FRIDAYS
And for a comprehensive A-to-F breakdown on 30 other chain restaurants, see the complete Eat This, Not That! For Kids Restaurant Report Card. Or check out the adult versions of the Restaurant Report Cards here
Have your own best and worst restaurant experiences? Please share them with the rest of us!
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