Yale Study: Best Fast Food Meals for Kids (Few and Far Between)

Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has done a great service by doing a detailed analysis of nutritional content in fast food meals for kids and the ways the foods are marketed. The reality for most parents is that fast food will play at least a small part in a child's weekly rhythm of meals. Here's what they found:

The study examines 12 fast food chains, McDonald’s among them, and evaluates their kids’ menu options based on three nutritional criteria: the Nutrient Profile Index, a scoring system of “overall nutritional quality that considers positive and negative nutrients in foods,” and calorie and sodium limits based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine Committee on School Meals. I.O.M. guidelines suggest that a meal served to preschool-age children should not exceed 410 calories and 544 mg of sodium, while a meal served to elementary-school-age children should not exceed 650 calories and 636 mg of sodium.

The Rudd Center study found that out of a possible 3,039 kids’ meal combinations at the 12 restaurants – that’s one main dish, one side dish, and one beverage – only twelve meals (0.4 percent) meet all three nutritional requirements for preschool-age-children, and only 15 meals ( 0.5 percent) meet all three for elementary-school-age children. Of the 189 possible Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals at McDonald’s, none meet all three nutritional requirements. Subway and Burger King are the only restaurants with meals that meet the standard.

So 12 out of 3,039. I guess it's not all that surprising, although McDonalds' 0 for 189 is particularly impressive.The folks at Yale created a handy ranking of kid's meals from best to worst. Subway dominates the top of the list with different combinations of their Veggie Deli sandwich. In that most kids won't go for that, the most realistic meal that kids will like that is best for them is, surprisingly, Burger King's macaroni and cheese with different combinations of fruit and drinks. The best McDonald's meal comes in at number thirty four with a hamburger, apple slices (no caramel), and low-fat milk.  Dairy Queen has the dubious honor of offering the worst kid's meal with their combination of a cheeseburger, french fries, soft drink, and Dilly Bar. If you take the Dilly Bar out of the equation, McDonald's jumps to the front of the pack with their double cheeseburger, french fries, and soft drink. One surprise on the worst list was the Taco Bell bean burrito and cinnamon twist combo that is packed with sodium.

One of the more fascinating charts in the report shows the nutritional content of the foods that are advertised to children and youth in a given day. I can't tell if this reflects kids children watching too much TV or the content of the  ads. Probably a little of both.

Ad chart I grabbed my daughters' school lunch menu to see how the nutrition content measures up to the I.O.M. guidelines and the thirteen meals in December all fail to meet the requirements. They're not far off on the calorie count, hovering around 680 calories per meal. Where they really miss the mark is in the areas that aren't federally regulated. I.O.M. recommends 636 mg of sodium and the school lunches for next week at our school average 1255 mg of sodium per meal.