WASHINGTON - Parents looking for healthy meal choices for their children are likely to find slim pickings on the menus of the nation's top restaurant chains, according to a report released Monday by a nonprofit public health group.
Nearly every possible combination of the children's meals at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Sonic, Jack in the Box, and Chick-fil-A are too high in calories, the report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest said.
The report looked into the nutritional quality of kids' meals at 13 major restaurant chains. The center found 93 percent of 1,474 possible choices at the 13 chains exceed 430 calories — an amount that is one-third of what the National Institute of Medicine recommends that children ages 4 through 8 should consume in a day.
For example, Chili's Bar and Grill has 700 possible kids' meal combinations, but 658, or 94 percent, of those are too high in calories. One Chili's meal consisted of country-fried chicken crispers, cinnamon apples and chocolate milk contained 1,020 calories, while another comprised of cheese pizza, homestyle fries, and lemonade contained 1,000 calories. Burger King has a "Big Kids" meal with a double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk at 910 calories, and Sonic has a "Wacky Pack" with 830 calories worth of grilled cheese, fries, and a slushie.
While there are some healthy choices on restaurant menus, "parents have to navigate a minefield of calories, fat and salt to find them," the report said.
Subway's kids' meals came out the best among the chains examined in the report. Only 6 of 18 "Fresh Fit for Kids" meals — which include a mini-sub, juice box, and one of several healthful side items such as apple slices, raisins or yogurt — exceed the 430-calorie threshold. But Subway is the only chain that doesn't offer soft drinks with kids' meals, which helped lower the calorie count.
The report notes that eating out now accounts for a third of children's daily caloric intake, twice the amount consumed away from home 30 years ago.
"Parents want to feed their children healthy meals, but America's chain restaurants are setting parents up to fail," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan said in a statement. "McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and other chains are conditioning kids to expect burgers, fried chicken, pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and soda in various combination at almost every lunch and dinner."
The National Restaurant Association, a business group of about 945,000 restaurants and food outlets, said the trend in the industry was to provide "more detailed nutritional information and choice in menu options for consumers."
But the group stressed that "exercising parental responsibility is key to childhood nutrition." The report, it said, "fails to acknowledge the essential role of nutrition education, physical activity and parental responsibility in childhood nutrition — good eating habits and healthy living must be established in the home."
The report found that 45 percent of children's meals exceed recommendations for saturated and trans fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease, and 86 percent of children's meals are high in sodium.
Christi Woodworth, a spokeswoman for Sonic, said the chain is looking into adding a variety of healthy side items, and plans to introduce string cheese at 90 calories each in September.
KFC released a statement saying the chain is "proud to offer a variety of kids meals for those looking for lower calorie, lower fat options." The statement noted that the report's calculations include baked Cheetos and a biscuit, sides that are no longer offered.
Jack in the Box spokeswoman Kathleen Anthony said while kids meals are not a "significant part of our business," parents do have several healthy items they can select for their children, such as applesauce and reduced fat milk.
Calls over the weekend to other restaurant chains in the report were not immediately returned.
The report recommends restaurants:
• Reformulate their menu items to reduce calories, saturated and trans fat, and salt, and add more healthy items like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
• Make fruit or vegetables and low-fat milk or water the default sides instead of French fries and soda for children's meals.
• Provide nutrition on menus and menu boards. New York and San Francisco are among the cities and localities that have adopted menu labeling policies.
Other restaurant chains included in the report are Wendy's, Dairy Queen, Arby's and Denny's.
Six leading restaurant chains — Applebee's, TGIFriday's, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and IHOP (International House of Pancakes) — weren't included in the report because they do not disclose nutrition information about their meals even when asked, the center said.