The Worst Kids' Meals in America

My friend Karen came to me a couple of weeks ago worried about her two kids. She's a single mom who works long hours and usually feels too tired to cook when she gets home at night. So she and the kids end up eating fast-food dinners from whatever restaurant they happen to pass on the way home from soccer practice. Now, Karen's no dope—she knows that a fast food diet is often a fast way to poor health. She also loves her kids, and wants them to stay fit and active. So she came to me, pleading: "What can I do to make sure they're eating well, even when I can't cook for them myself?"

Karen's right to be concerned. Childhood obesity rates in America have tripled since 1980: today, 20 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 are obese. What's more, a disturbing 70 percent of overweight adolescents end up that way as adults. And since obesity increases your odds of heart attack, stroke, and early death, consider the impact of an entire generation of overweight children on our country's health care system—and our families.

It's a chilling thought. But here's the thing: I told Karen that restaurant food every now and then is perfectly fine. She just needs the nutrition information and recommendations that Eat This, Not That! provides on all of America's popular fast-food and sit-down restaurants. This way she can choose the smart options--and stay away from the worst restaurant kids meals--while eating her favorites foods and losing weight. Below are  five of the unhealthiest kids' meals in America--and the healthier (and equally tasty) alternatives that they should choose instead. And remember: Teaching your kids healthy eating habits is only half the equation--passing on healthy fitness habits is just as important. (So this list of The World's Fastest and Easiest Exercise Tips will help keep them, and you, fit and lean for life!) 

Olive Garden Fettuccine Alfredo meal
800 calories
48 g fat (30 g saturated)
810 mg sodium
SATURATED FAT EQUIVALENT: 1.5 full jars of Nutella!

I don’t know who this guy Alfredo is, but I’d like to give him a piece of my mind. This sauce is made with oil, butter, cream, and cheese. It’s always going to be rich, but the saturated fat here is just out of control. The American Heart Association recommends that we don't consume more than 7 percent of our total calories from saturated fat, but this sauce has four times that. It’s true that most kids don’t have to worry about heart attacks, but they do have to worry about obesity. About a third of the calories on this plate are from saturated fat. Another third come from carbohydrates. That leaves very little room for anything even remotely nutritionally redeeming. 

Eat This Instead!
Cheese Ravioli
300 calories
8 g fat (4 g saturated)
440 mg sodium 

This meal still provides the rich flavor of cheese, but it serves it in a reasonable portion size. The secret here, and you should always look for this when you’re eating Italian, is that it’s served in a low-fat, highly nutritious tomato-based sauce. Try to steer your child away from anything made in a white sauce.

Bonus tip: Something else to keep in mind: One way to cut hundreds of calories from your kids' diets is to watch the sugary drinks. Start with the beverages on this list of The Absolutely Worst Drinks in America. (Some of them have more than a day's worth of calories, fat and sugar!) 

Applebee’s Grilled Cheese with French fries  
1,020 calories
54 g fat (17 g saturated)
2,170 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 400 Cheddar Goldfish Crackers (that’s 1.3 full bags!)

Here’s the crazy part: You can make a grilled cheese sandwich in your own house—using real cheese and toasting it with real butter—and still manage to slide in at about 300 calories. This one has 620 calories, and the fries account for another 400. 

Eat This Instead! 
Hot Dog with Applesauce
300 calories
13 g fat (4 g saturated)
860 mg sodium 

A hot dog is no nutritional ideal, but as long as it’s not a big stadium brat, it does have the advantage of being relatively low in calories. And kids love them. Swap out the fries for something truly nutritious, like vegetables or applesauce.  

Bonus tip: Want to know how many calories you should be eating in a given day? Multiply your ideal body weight by 11. For more of the latest nutrition and health secrets to help you live better right away, follow me here on Twitter. 

Outback Steakhouse Kookaburra Chicken Fingers meal with Aussie Fries  
1,030 calories
60 g fat (21 g saturated)
2,052 mg sodium
FAT EQUIVALENT: 12 Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts!

Beige food? Never a good choice. If this is what they’re eating down under, we’re better off staying up here. And here’s something else we don’t talk about enough with kids’ foods: sodium. This meal has almost as much as your child should eat in an entire day. That’s dangerous for two reasons: 1) It puts a strain on a child’s cardiovascular system; and 2) It reinforces a taste preference for sodium-loaded foods, so they’ll have a hard time ever breaking free from the salt shaker. 

Bonus tip: For more examples of sodium-stuffed foods to avoid, check out this truly horrifying list of the 30 Saltiest Foods in America!    

Eat This Instead! 
Joey Sirloin with Fresh Seasonal Veggies
435 calories
28.5 g fat (15 g saturated)
631 mg sodium

If we can get kids eating real food earlier in life, they’ll be primed for staying fit and healthy well into old age. Despite what some people might think about eating red meat, sirloin steak is immensely nutritious. It’s lean, loaded with protein, and rich in vitamins and minerals. 

Denny’s Slap Shot Sliders (2) meal with Finish Line Fries
1,070 calories
53 g fat (16 g saturated, 2 g trans)
1,180 mg sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 505 Jujubes (that’s just over 2 full boxes!)

This meal is an assault to children’s health and the world of sports. It uses sports terminology to sell food that turns kids into little sumo wrestlers. Again, there’s more than 1,000 calories in this meal. A 10-year-old kid should be eating only about 1,600 to 1,800 calories over the course of an entire day.  

Eat This Instead!
Spaghetti, Set, Go! with Apple Dunkers and Caramel Dip
390 calories
7 g fat (2 g saturated)
325 mg sodium

Again, you’ve got the red marinara sauce, which is very good. You’ve also got slices of apple with caramel dip. This is something we’re seeing on more and more restaurant menus. Kids like it because it has the same finger-food appeal as french fries, and parents like it because it won’t make their kids look like lumpy sacks of potatoes. 

Bonus tip: Here's  another sneaky source of kid calories: Wayward snacking. Is your child snacking smart? See the good—and bad—chips and dips choices on our list of the Best and Worst Chips and Dips.

Friendly’s Mac & Cheese Quesadilla meal with Friendly Frank, Shirley Temple and Friend-z Peanut Butter Cup  
2,270 calories
109 g fat (45 g saturated)
3,320 sodium
CALORIE EQUIVALENT: 45 Glazed Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts!

Friendly? Ha! This restaurant deserves the Phoniest Name of the Decade Award. This meal has an entire day’s worth of calories for a full-grown adult. Plus it has more saturated fat or sodium than you should ever see at one table. Part of the problem here is the pile-on policy: The entrée plus the side plus the drink plus the dessert. All of that comes with the meal. And dessert? Since when did dessert stop being extra? This is just dangerous food that gets a boost from a bad policy. 

Eat This Instead!
Grilled Cheese With Mandarin Oranges, 1% Milk, and a Double Shot Cone
800 calories
34 g fat (19 g saturated)
1,150 mg sodium

Now, here’s what’s crazy: The same sandwich that had more than 600 calories at Applebee’s—the grilled cheese—has only 290 calories at Friendly’s. That’s good, but it still comes with that obligatory dessert, which keeps this meal in the caloric danger zone. At 270 calories, The Double Shot Cone is the best you can do, but if you tell your server to scrap dessert altogether, your child suddenly has a reasonable 530-calorie entree.

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