For better or worse, eating at fast-food restaurants is ingrained within our childhood memories. Crawling around a plastic play-place, donning a cardboard crown, or struggling to collect each and every Teenie Beanie Baby (Spunky the Cocker Spaniel, I will find you… one day) created an experience that many of us simply can’t forget.
But as nutritional science caught up with the fast-food industry, it became apparent that the food served at these brightly-colored, jocular restaurants was linked to serious health problems.
The meals on this list are all less than 500 calories, and usually include a portion-controlled main dish, a bottle of low-fat milk, water, or unsweetened tea, as well as some form of fruit or yogurt. They take into account calorie and fat content, and are made of relatively wholesome ingredients (with some forms of chicken nuggets being the exception).
Here are 12 fast-food kid’s meals that are actually healthy.
Arby’s menu doesn’t exactly make it easy to find healthy options, because their deli meats are loaded with calories and sodium. Thankfully, their Roast Beef ‘N Cheese Slider is just the right size for a kid to feel satisfied without overdoing it on salt. The slider is only 240 calories — 10 calories fewer than their kid’s-size curly fries; add a squeezable applesauce and a bottle of whole milk for a reasonable lunch.
If you’re going to take a kid to Burger King, you might as well go all-out and get their signature burger. The Hamburger King Jr is a modest offering at only 230 calories. The meal in its entirety is only 370 calories and nine grams of fat, but it still manages to provide 18 grams of protein.
Despite their controversies, everyone can agree that Chick-fil-A doesn’t play around when it comes to chicken. The chain had the foresight to offer a grilled chicken nugget option — the only grilled nugget available in the fast-food restaurant circuit. A four-piece grilled nuggets kid’s meal with a fruit cup is a modest 145 calories, and only three grams of total fat.
Whether you’re a kid or an adult, Chipotle Mexican Grill has plenty of healthy eating options to choose from. However, Chipotle’s kids’ menu is not broadly advertised, so it’s actually something of a secret. They offer a “build-your-own” taco plate that gives customers the option to choose a protein, two fillings (rice, fajitas, beans, cheese), two taco shells, a bag of chips or fruit, and a drink. If you’re counting calories, stay away from the chips and carnitas and opt for chicken, beans, and fajita vegetables. They also have a quesadilla option that is slightly less caloric because it only comes with one tortilla.
Dairy Queen started out selling ice cream and other frozen treats, but they have since released a line of fast-food items in select stores. Their healthiest kids’ menu option is definitely their grilled chicken wrap at 250 calories, but it will be hard to leave any DQ without getting one of their signature cones — which they thankfully offer in a kid-size.
KFC has its redeeming qualities, if you can look past their KFC Double-Down — a sandwich that uses two pieces of fried chicken as buns. Their kids’ menu is one of the most robust and customizable, offering a variety of side dishes which include green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, and macaroni and cheese. The healthiest selection in terms of calories is the grilled drumstick with a side of green beans, which together are only 110 calories.
It’s impossible to bring your kids through the Golden Arches and avoid French fries. But thankfully, the McDonald’s Happy Meal menu offers a kid’s fries, providing just the right amount of fries to keep the children satisfied. Tack on a four-piece Chicken McNuggets, a yogurt, and an apple juice, and you’re still only looking at 420 calories.
Panera Bread doesn’t curate their menu to a child’s palates: The chain offers kid-sized versions of all their classic soups and some of their salads. Their vegetarian summer corn chowder with roasted corn, red potatoes, sweet cream, poblano peppers, and cilantro brings a lot of sophisticated flavor for only 210 calories. A kid’s Caesar salad and squeezable yogurt puts this balanced meal at well under 500 calories.
Labeling any food served at Popeyes as “healthy” is undoubtedly a stretch, but they offer some reasonable selections for their younger customers. Their kid’s meal comes with one chicken tender, barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes, and a drink. A regular order of mashed potatoes is only 110 calories, and for a drink, customers watching their calories can opt for a five-calorie unsweetened iced tea.
Subway’s “mini” sandwiches are the perfect options for a kid’s tiny stomach. The turkey breast mini is only 180 calories and contains just two grams of fat. Pair the sandwich with low-fat milk and apple slices for a lunch that parents can responsibly serve to their children.
Chicken nuggets seem to be the way to go when planning a fast-food kid’s meal. Wendy’s nuggets only contain 180 calories per serving. Some apple slices and low-fat milk put the meal at 300 calories even.
White Castle is one of the oldest fast-food chains in America, and their signature steam slider is, coincidentally, the perfect size for little hands (and little stomachs). One original slider, along with a kid’s-sized fry, apple sauce, and an unsweetened iced tea is only 440 calories, which isn’t too bad considering that White Castle is famous for its seriously indulgent meals.
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