Finding nutritious options for children on restaurant menus can be especially difficult. Here are some of the worst offenders—from obvious calorie bombs to more surprising, sneaky items—that you shouldn’t order off the kids’ menu, along with healthier alternatives that will still keep your kids happy.
Sodas and fruit juices
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When you see a cobalt-blue or neon-green, kiddie-bait carbonated beverage on a kids’ menu, one glance is all it takes to know that it’s far from nutritious. Any type of soda—on a kids’ menu or not—is packed with sugar and devoid of nutrients. More surprisingly, though, fruit juices are really not a healthier alternative, especially ones targeted at children.
“Skip juice as a beverage,” suggests Amanda Baker Lemein, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Chicago. “The simple sugar in juice adds up quickly, with few nutrients in store.” Instead, stick to milk or water. Even—surprise!—chocolate milk is a decent option, since you’re “still incorporating protein and calcium,” says Lemein.
“Chicken is a healthy food, but not when it’s been breaded and deep-fried,” says Kelly Krikhely, MS, CDN, a New York City–based registered dietitian. Chicken fingers are one of the most popular kids’-menu staples, but most restaurants’ versions are loaded with calories and sodium.
As an alternative, order grilled chicken—the different method of cooking makes a massive difference in nutritional value. If your children are a little older and/or less picky, you could also try ordering a chicken dish from the regular menu and sharing it with them to help expand their tastes! Check out these other suggestions from nutritionists for mealtime with picky eaters.
Pasta with chicken
Cooking Light assessed the best and worst kids’-menu items at nine different restaurants, and at three of them—the Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, and Chili’s—some variation on a chicken-and-pasta dish ranked worst. Meals like these are packed with sodium and contain a huge helping of calories, many of which come from fat. Especially if the chicken is breaded, and/or if cheese is a significant component of the dish, these are items to avoid.
In most cases, even the regular mac-and-cheese options are more nutritious alternatives. Yes, a topping-free pasta dish is a healthier alternative to a salt bomb packed with chicken and cheese. In fact, NBC News names Au Bon Pain and Uno’s Chicago Grill specifically as restaurants where the kids’ macaroni-and-cheese dishes are relatively guilt-free picks. Check out these 8 horrifying restaurant menu items that are basically a heart attack on a plate.