You've got hungry kids in the car and you need food pronto, so you pull into the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant. We've all been there … but, hopefully, not too often. A 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics found that teenagers and younger children who eat fast food consume more calories than at home. In addition to excess energy, a steady diet of fast food — heavy on fat, sugar and sodium and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals — may contribute to nutrient deficiencies.
Fast food meals for kids have gotten healthier, but these quick-serve food establishments remain a minefield of less-than-desirable choices. "I do not recommend fast food on a regular basis," says Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. "But if you do offer it to kids once a week, make sure to choose the most nutrient-rich options in kid-appropriate portions."
The wafting smells of french fries or fresh donuts can play havoc on your resolve to order smart, so be clear about your rules for fast food before ordering. For example, let your kids know you want them to sip milk instead of soda or have a fruit or vegetable with their meal. Allow them to choose between apple slices or a salad, not between a salad and french fries.
Arm Yourself with Information
Many quick-serve establishments list nutritional content online, so take a few minutes to study the best choices at a variety of fast food joints before you hit the road. When you don't have the time to check facts, avoid fried anything or any food smothered in cheese or other sauces, and keep these healthier choices in mind:
- Salad with grilled chicken
- Grilled chicken wrap or fresh turkey wrap
- Plain, kid-sized hamburger
- Low-fat yogurt
- Apple slices
- Bean burritos or tacos
- Large fruit cups
- Small roast beef sandwich
- Fat-free or low-fat milk
Mind the Portions
Order appropriate child-size meals for youngsters and resist supersizing meals for older kids, unless two or more children are splitting it. It's good to know that adults can order kid-sized meals, which often automatically come with fruit and low-fat milk and supply about half the calories of a meal you would order off the menu.
Rethink Your Drink
Younger children should drink milk or water most of the time. Teenagers, who may be able to eat more calories because they are active, may request frappes, regular soda or blended coffee beverages that are loaded with sugar and can have as many calories as a meal. Instead, steer them toward the smallest size possible or have them split the smallest drink on the menu.
Plan to Avoid Fast Food
"There's nothing like an empty stomach to make you succumb to temptation," Zied says. Planning for hunger can help you avoid the pull of the drive-thru. Stay on course by keeping healthy foods in the car, including dried fruit, natural applesauce in single-serve containers and nuts. On longer trips, take a small cooler or refrigerator bag stocked with fresh fruit, string cheese, low-fat yogurt, milk boxes, whole-grain crackers, nut butters or hummus and fresh veggies to tide you over or to supplement a fast food meal.