Let’s face it, fast food isn’t usually synonymous with healthy eating. Grabbing a Happy Meal for a hungry toddler isn’t something most parents like to do often, but sometimes it’s necessary. On those race-against-the-clock days when you’re juggling errands, doctor’s appointments, and the sacred nap schedule, you may not have the luxury of preparing a meal for your baby at home.
Fortunately, most fast-food restaurants have expanded their menus to include more options than just the standard burgers, fries, sugary sodas, and deep-fried fare that have given them a bad name. Whether you’re on a road trip or just in the middle of a busy afternoon, it is possible to keep your pint-sized passengers satisfied with a quick and affordable drive-thru meal. We’ve compiled some of the best fast-food options for kids to help you when you’re looking for healthier options.
Eat This, Not That! ranked the top 10 best fast-food meals for kids, based mostly on calories, in order from best to worst. You might be surprised when you look at this list, as some of the “worst” ranked meals seem like they should be the healthiest.
The top 10 best to worst fast-food items
- Subway Mini-Black Forest Ham Sandwich
- Arby’s Chicken Tender n’ Cheese Slider
- Chick-fil-A Kids Meal
- Burger King PB & Jamwich
- McDonald’s 4-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal
- Popeye’s Chicken Leg with Fries
- Dairy Queen Kids Meal Combo
- Wendy’s Grilled Chicken Wrap
- Jack-in-the-Box Chicken Sandwich Kids Meal
- Sonic Jr. Burger
There’s no denying French fries are delicious, but their high salt and fat content aren’t doing your child’s health any favors. Fruit is a popular and healthy alternative that provides a bit of sweetness without sacrificing nutrition. Many fast-food chains offer some type of fruit on their menus as an alternative side to fries.
Chick-fil-A offers a fruit cup that contains apple slices, strawberry slices, blueberries, and mandarin orange sections. McDonald’s offers bags of apple slices as an alternative to the standard French fries, and Wendy’s also has apple bites that clock in at just 35 calories.
Grilled chicken nuggets
Chicken tenders or chicken strips are among the most popular fast-food items for kids. Most children have about a year where only dino-shaped chicken nuggets are allowed on their plate, but the deep-fried breading adds extra fat. Chick-fil-A (and a lot of other fast-food chains) offers a grilled version of chicken nuggets that contain only 3 grams of fat per serving.
Skip the sugary sodas and juices and instead serve milk as an in-car beverage. In addition to having far less sugar and no caffeine, it’s also packed with vitamins and nutrients that kids need, including vitamin D, calcium, and protein. Most fast-food restaurants include milk (white or chocolate) on their menus. But try to stick with regular white milk, as chocolate milk can be just as bad as soda and juices.
For a high-protein, high-calcium snack that also offers the sweetness kids crave, you can’t beat yogurt. Chick-fil-A offers a Greek Yogurt Parfait that also contains fresh berries and an optional granola topping.
Although not the healthiest fast-food option out there, corn dogs are definitely kid-approved, high in protein, and have the added benefit of being a very portable, car-friendly food. Sonic offers a traditional corn dog on a stick.
Macaroni and cheese
Most kids are big mac-and-cheese fans, and while it is high in fat and carbs, it also contains a good amount of protein, potassium, and calcium. Some fast-food restaurants that offer macaroni and cheese include Chick-fil-A, KFC, and Noodles & Company.
Vegetables from a drive-thru? Fast-food restaurants have come a long way health-wise, and some chains now offer veggies as a side item. KFC offers green beans and most QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) offer side salads containing various veggies. Broccoli has seen a huge rise in popularity and is a side item at quite a few fast-food favorites.
When you find yourself at the drive-thru, there are some things to keep in mind to make smarter choices for your little one.
- Avoid fries when possible. They’re greasy and provide little nutrition.
- Stay away from sugary drinks. They add unnecessary calories, some have caffeine, and they have no nutritional value. Instead, choose water or plain milk.
- If your fast-food restaurant offers veggies, don’t hesitate to add them to your kid’s meal. They’re packed with vitamins and fiber.
- Depending on where you’re eating, subs, wraps, and tacos are also much healthier options than traditional fast-food burgers and fried chicken.
It may seem drastic to start substituting apple slices for fries and water for sugary sodas, but these can make a big difference in your child’s diet, especially if your schedule is so busy that you are at the drive-thru more than you’d like. In a study published by the CDC that looked at data from the years 2015 to 2018, over one-third (36.3%) of children and adolescents consumed fast food on a given day.
Although avoiding the drive-thru completely isn’t always an option for a busy family, trying to limit how often you need to order fast food and making healthy choices when you do can help minimize feeding your child empty calories and foods high in sodium and fat.
When your little one is on the brink of a meltdown and you need some quick sustenance, the drive-thru starts to look pretty appetizing — especially with the added benefit of not having to leave your car. But you don’t want to sacrifice the quality of your baby’s food for the sake of convenience.
While it’s nice to prepare healthy meals at home, the reality is life sometimes throws curveballs that make cooking impossible. In those cases, hitting a drive-thru could be a quick, convenient way to prevent your little one’s “hangriness” while also preserving your sanity. By choosing the healthiest options available, you can keep your toddler happy and feel good about your choices.
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