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Study: Fast Food for Kids Comes with a Heavy Helping of Calories

August 5, 2008

St. Paul, MN – Looking for a healthy meal on the run for your kids? Just drive right on by those national fast-food chains, a new study warns. The Center for Science in the Public Interest finds that most major restaurant chains serve children's meals loaded with calories, salt and fat.

That comes as no surprise to Andi Egbert with the Children’s Defense Fund in Minnesota. But a lot of parents who know better still count on the restaurants for a quick snack when they're in a hurry, she says.

"They're juggling day care and work and a lot of other commitments. So when they see that 'oasis' - a meal in a hurry - it can be very tempting when they're rushed. Add on top of that some of the hard economic pressures parents are facing right now, and those cheaper items can become very attractive."

The report finds that eating out accounts for one-third of a child's daily intake of calories, double the proportion of 30 years ago. Egbert suggests that a good alternative would be keeping a sealed bag in the car filled with fresh fruit and cheese, low-fat crackers and non-sugary drinks - a snack that can usually hold kids until they get home.

Egbert adds that too much fast food can have consequences beyond a few extra pounds.

"It's not ideal for children's development, and they can struggle to pay attention. Just having all the nutrients, we know, helps healthy brain development and attentiveness to everything that we want them to learn in childhood, in school and out."

Of the restaurants studied--KFC, Taco Bell, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Chick-fil-A, Chil's, Subway, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Dairy Queen, Arby's and Denny's--Subway's kids' meals came out the best. KFC said it's "proud to offer a variety of kids' meals for those looking for lower calories, lower fat options."

There's a good marketing lesson in the study for restaurants on how to attract more families with small children, Egbert concludes.

"The message is that parents are paying attention. They may be busy, but they're also increasingly savvy. They want to feed their kids good things. Restaurants should see that parents are willing to buy applesauce and string cheese and yogurt, and that they want these things for their kids instead of just fries and high-grease items."

Jim Wishner/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - MN