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When you cook and eat at home together as a family, the food is usually healthier than eating out and sharing meals and spending time together as a family is always a healthy habit.
With our busy, stressful lives however, eating dinner together every night isn’t always possible.
There are hectic work schedules. There are after-school activities. There are other obligations and factors that are constantly pulling us in a million directions and sometimes pulling off a home cooked meal isn’t realistic.
During those times, eating out seems like the easiest choice but ordering off the kids’ menu isn’t always the best idea. Most of the kids’ meals that restaurants serve are high in calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
The one benefit of ordering off the kids’ menu however, is that the portions are usually kid-sized.
Are There Healthy Restaurants For Kids?
In 2011, the National Restaurant Association along with Healthy Dining launched the Kids LiveWell program. Restaurants that participate in the program have made a commitment to offer healthy meal items for kids with a particular focus on helping them increase the amount of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy they consume.
Although it seems like a good idea, a March 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found the program has made little progress in improving nutrition on the kids’ menus.
When you eat out with your kids, what they order matters. Instead of spending hours scouring the menus and cross checking the nutritional information however, I’ve done it all for you.
Here are 5 popular family restaurants and the healthy kids meals they offer.
1. Panera Bread
Panera Bread is one of my favorite places to eat with my kids.
Their food has no artificial preservatives, sweeteners or flavors, they offer several plant-based and vegetarian options like lentils, edamame and quinoa and they have a kids menu with items like black bean soup and Greek salad.
Sure, they sell lots of bread but they also have gluten-free options. It’s a clean place, the staff are friendly and professional and the ambience is top-notch for their category.
The one drawback however, is that most of their meals are high in sodium so you have to be careful about what you order.
Their Avocado Cobb Salad With Chicken (half portion) is a great choice for kids. At 240 calories, the salad has 4 grams of fiber, 19 grams of protein and healthy fats. It also has one of the lowest amounts of sodium of all menu items—230 milligrams.
If your kid shuns salads however, the Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich on the kids’ menu is a good choice. At 360 calories, 3 grams of fiber and 23 grams of protein, it has 640 milligrams of sodium, but it’s still one of the lowest (next to the peanut butter and jelly). What makes this one a winner is the cabbage, arugula and apple.
Most of the meals on Applebee’s kids’ menu are high in calories, saturated fat and sodium and I have found that the portions are too big for my young kids.
The chicken grillers seem to be a healthy choice, but with 760 grams of sodium, it’s way too much.
Instead, order the 4-ounce sirloin, which has 140 calories, only 180 milligrams of sodium, 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 23 grams of protein. Add a side of steamed broccoli and an applesauce and you have a healthy kids meal.
They’ve built a reputation for serving up quick, fresh and made to order sandwiches, but Subway also has their Fresh Fit For Kids menu, with a handful of OK options that are good when you’re short on time.
Of the 4 sandwiches they offer, all of which come with apple slices and either fruit punch or milk, I’d choose the Veggie Delite or the Roast Beef Mini which are good sources of protein, low in sodium and have lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers and cucumbers.
Choose the 9-grain wheat bread for 4 grams of fiber and forget the chips, cookies and swap the drink options for water instead.
4. Outback Steakhouse
Known for their steaks, chicken and seafood, Outback Steakhouse also offers a few kids meals on their “Joey” menu.
Two good choices are Grilled Chicken on the Barbie or the Sirloin medallions, both of which come with broccoli and apple juice. These options are both under 340 calories, have 37 grams of protein and are under 420 milligrams of sodium. Make this meal healthier by nixing the juice—and the added calories and sugar.
5. Texas Roadhouse
A family restaurant, Texas Roadhouse serves steaks, ribs, burgers, handcrafted sides and fresh-baked bread.
Your best bet is the Grilled Chicken dish on the kids’ menu which has 160 calories, 34 grams of protein and 135 grams of sodium. Choose fresh vegetables or green beans and water for a healthy kids meal.