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Fast food choices don't have to weigh a young athlete down

By Kim Schwabenbauer Thu, 06/23/2011 - 2:27pm

Being a parent means making the best choices available for your children. When it comes to eating healthy during a hectic schedule, those decisions often become difficult.

Whether on the go between practices or making a quick pit stop during a camp, aside from checking out the nutrition facts at fast food restaurants, what can parents do?

Like with all decisions – do the best you can.

Look for grilled or baked items, such as grilled chicken or grilled lean burgers, and avoid fried foods. Choose low-fat or skim milk or 100 percent fruit juice over carbonated beverages and others that simply provide calories without nutritional value.

Milk and juice typically come in smaller portions appropriate for children. However, sodas and shakes made for kids are often more even an adult needs in terms of calories and fat.

To eat healthier when eating out, it can help to:

  • Review the nutrition information available at most restaurants. The nutritional content may be posted next to the item in the menu or in a book at the counter.  In addition, it is usually available both at the restaurant and on the restaurant’s website. Be sure to include side dishes, dressings, drinks and desserts when you try to figure out the nutrition facts for each child’s meal.
  • Avoid the kids menu when eating out. Although the kids menu includes most of a typical child’s favorites, including items like chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese and french fries, these usually are the foods that are high in calories, high in fat / saturated fat, high in sodium and low in fiber.  As a concerned parent, these are all the things you are trying to avoid!
  • Get your child a half-order of something healthy on the regular menu, or if available, the heart-healthy or low-fat version of an item.  If your child is young enough, consider sharing some of your own order, keeping in mind that restaurants often serve oversized portions that are more than enough for two. 
  • If you must order off of the kids menu, choose the healthiest option, something that isn't fried, but instead baked or steamed. Choose healthy side dishes, including vegetables or fruits instead of French fries.  Avoid full-fat dressings and get your child a glass of low-fat milk instead of soda.

Use the opportunity to eat out to help your child expand their pallet. Try new foods or things that you don't often have at home, including whole grains, vegetable soups, fish, etc.

Also remember that most soft drinks have calories, sugar and caffeine, so if your child doesn’t like milk or diet soda, have them drink water. If you get regular soda, discourage your child from getting multiple refills, adding (at a minimum) another 200 or 300 calories per cup along with additional caffeine.

Choose a healthy dessert, such as fruit or sherbet.  A regular dessert can even be shared among the whole family.

There are healthier choices for kids fast food and with a little knowledge, you can be more informed and make better decisions.  The options below were cited in Good Housekeeping as some great examples of options at popular restaurants.  

Among the options:

  • Subway – ham mini-sub with juice box and apple slices or raisins; roast beef mini-sub and juice box with apple slices, raisins or yogurt; turkey mini-sub and juice box with apples slices, raisins or yogurt
  • Chili’s – grilled chicken sandwich with apple juice and corn kernels, mandarin oranges or pineapple
  • Denny's – pancakes without meat, with maple syrup; macaroni and cheese with grapes
  • Arby's – popcorn chicken or junior roast beef sandwich with fruit cup and fruit juice

Healthier options at fast food restaurants from Good Housekeeping.

McDonald's children’s menu

  • Chicken nuggets, four pack
  • Sliced apples (without the caramel dipping sauce)
  • 1 percent chocolate milk

Total: 395 calories, 15 g total fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 650 mg sodium

McDonald’s for tweens

  • Hamburger
  • Snack size fruit and walnut salad
  • Jug of low-fat milk

Total: 560 calories, 19.5 g total fat, 6.5 g saturated fat, 705 mg sodium

McDonald’s for teens

  • Chicken nuggets, six pack
  • Snack size fruit and walnut salad
  • Jug of low-fat chocolate milk
  • 1/2 order of small fries

Total: 737 calories, 32 g total fat, 6.5 g saturated fat, 863 mg sodium

KFC for children and tweens

  • Chicken breast with no skin
  • ·5 1/2-inch corn on the cob, butter flavor
  • 10 oz. of 2 percent milk

Total: 450 calories, 9 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 695 mg sodium

KFC for teens

  • Chicken breast with no skin
  • Three-bean salad
  • 5 1/2-inch corn on the cob, butter flavor
  • 10 oz. of 2 percent milk

Total: 520 calories, 9 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 865 mg sodium

Burger King for children

  • Mac 'n cheese
  • 1 percent low-fat milk
  • Apple fries, no caramel sauce

Total: 340 calories, 8 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 470 mg sodium

Burger King for tweens

  • Whopper Junior, no cheese or mayo
  • Apple fries, no caramel sauce
  • Cup of low-fat chocolate milk

Total: 495 calories, 14.5 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 640 mg sodium

Burger King for teens

  • Whopper Junior., no cheese or mayo
  • Apple fries, no caramel sauce
  • 1/2 order of value fries, no salt
  • Cup of low-fat milk

Total: 525 calories, 17.5 g total fat, 5.75 g saturated fat, 770 mg sodium

You can read more at Good Housekeeping's Healthy Fast Food for Kids a Tall Order?


Kim Schwabenbauer, a nutrition expert and corporate dietitian with Super Bakery as well as a member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee, has some valuable advice on the matter.