Whether seated at a super fancy Italian bistro, a roadside diner, or an airport Chili’s, there’s a good chance you can guess what’s on the kids menu without even looking: some version of chicken fingers, a burger, grilled cheese (or, if it’s a Mexican restaurant, a quesadilla), personal pizzas (cheese or pepperoni), and macaroni and cheese.
It’s hard to decide what’s more offensive about restaurant kids’ menus in America: their lack of creativity and flavor, or their surplus of sodium and saturated fat. On the one hand, never exposing children to anything more flavorful than ketchup and powdered cheese is cultivating a generation of finicky eaters. On the other, pumping kids full of fried chicken, fries, and fizzy beverages is fanning the flames of our nation’s already out-of-control childhood obesity epidemic, which has tripled since the ’70s.
Facing increased political pressure to do better by their young diners (thanks, Michelle Obama!), many chain restaurants have sworn to give kids’ menus a healthy makeover. But for all their promises, a 2017 study of major chains discovered little improvement in the calories, saturated fat, and sodium levels offered in kids’ menus.
When it comes to greasy, fatty, unhealthy kids menu items, some restaurant menus are worse than others. To see most shameful contenders, check out these kids’ menu items you should never order for your child.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill double macaroni and cheese
Usually found in malls and shopping plazas across the US, Romano’s Macaroni Grill is a menace to the waistlines of unsuspecting American Eagle and Hot Topic shoppers. The Italian-inspired chain has earned a "heart attack on a plate" reputation for its calorie- and saturated fat-packed pastas.
The kids menu at Romano’s Macaroni Grill it’s fair share of unhealthy eats, but the double macaroni & cheese wins in terms of saturated fat content. Clocking in at 1,070 calories, the double mac & cheese falls slightly behind the chicken tenders with fries (1,250 calories), but surpasses (by a long shot) all other kids items with its 36 grams of saturated fat.
If you’re dining with the fam at Romano’s, your best kids menu bet may be the spaghetti with pomodoro sauce. The children’s version of this pasta dish contains 290 calories and a single gram of saturated fat. That’s under a third of the calories and 1/36 of the amount of saturated fat of its macaroni counterpart.
Uno’s kids chicken pops
You might not suspect higher sugar content could be the main problem with a poultry dish. But the kids’ chicken pops at Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill are so high in sugar, you might as well just feed them an ice cream cone for dinner.
Paired with ketchup and barbecue sauce, the poultry pops deliver a whopping 27 grams of sugar. By comparison, a half-cup serving of vanilla ice cream from many of your favorite brands lurk between 11 and 21 grams of sugar.
And that’s only the beginning of the case against Uno’s chicken pops. The children’s chicken dish also includes 810 calories and 1760 grams of sodium, which is more than half of the daily recommended amount of sodium for youngsters. The chicken pops also come with a choice of side—choose fries and sweet potato fries, and you’d be piling another 450 calories and hundreds of grams of sodium onto your kid’s plate.
The obvious alternative to these poultry pops would be the kid’s Safari nuggets, which are made from the same bird but baked, not fried. The Safari nuggets are much less scary, both because they only come with 290 calories and because they’re shaped like friendly zoo animals. Just make sure you hook your kiddo up with a healthy side, too, like the roasted veggies or red grapes.
P.F. Chang’s kids honey chicken
As far as chain restaurant kids menus go, P.F. Chang’s does alright for itself. Not only do its children’s offerings diverge from the standard grilled-cheese-burger-mac-and-cheese-etc of other major brands, P.F. Chang’s kiddie entrees typically fall on the lower side of 500 calories. (The kids’ chicken fried rice, which hits 570, is the sole exception.)
But the worst option on the P.F. Chang’s kids’ menu is arguably the honey chicken, which comes with 420 calories and 23 grams of sugar.
The clear winner of healthiest item on the P.F. Chang’s kids’ menu is the steamed Baby Buddha’s Feast, a plate of colorful veggies cooked up without a drop of butter, squirt of oil, or sprinkle of MSG. But as you may be well aware, it’ll take a fair amount of airplane noises to coax the average kid into finishing off a steamed plate of broccoli and peas.
Applebee’s grilled cheese sandwich
Let’s take a moment to breakdown the three major ingredients of a basic grilled cheese sandwich: bread, cheese, and butter. With such a time-honored, three-item recipe, it can be tough to make a healthy version of a grilled cheese. You could replace the bread with lettuce, the cheese with tomatoes, and the butter with balsamic vinegar, but a lot of people might get all nitpicky and insist on calling this a salad.
Despite its undeniably unhealthy constitution, the gooey, greasy grilled cheese has somehow made its way into lunch boxes across the US and onto nearly every major restaurant’s kids menu. Of the many renditions of kids grilled cheese sandwiches out there, Applebee’s take may be the most troubling. The sandwich is built with white bread, a highly processed, refined carbohydrate that promotes blood sugar swings and has been linked to increased risk of diabetes.
In addition to packing in 620 calories, Applebee’s grilled cheese comes with 14 grams of saturated fat. And—perhaps worst of all—the sandwich includes trans fat, widely villainized for its heart disease– and obesity- inducing properties. For a child, one gram of trans fat is more than enough the entire day.
If you must take your child to Applebee’s, your least offensive option may be the crispy shrimp. The seafood dish contains a much more forgiving 170 calories, single gram of sugar, and 0 grams of trans fats.
IHOP’s Jr. cheeseburger sliders
On a kids’ menu that lists whipped cream, powdered sugar, and rainbow sprinkles as perfectly acceptable breakfast toppings, it’s tough to single in on one unhealthiest item to rule them all. The Jr. cheeseburger sliders with applesauce make our pick not only because of the dish’s high calorie count (710), but because of its 17 grams of saturated fat and 1.5 grams of trans fat.
In addition, the cheeseburger sliders somehow contain nearly as much or more sugar than even super sweet entrees like the Funny Face pancakes (23 grams of sugar) and French toast with Nutella (19 grams of sugar). And then, IHOP has the nerve to throw that cup of applesauce in there and pretend like it’s healthy.
Skip the sliders and go for a safer choice: the chicken nuggets with applesauce, which come with a modest 210 calories, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, and a merciful lack of trans fats.
Cheesecake Factory kids pasta with alfredo sauce
Often slammed as the least healthy chain restaurant in America, the Cheesecake Factory has a predictably shameful kids menu. With the word "cheesecake" in their name, what else do you expect, right? But amid options like fried chicken sliders and hot fudge sundaes, who would have guessed the harmless-sounding pasta with Alfredo sauce would be among the worst offenders?
The pasta with Alfredo sauce clocks in at a 1,100 calories with 43 grams of saturated fat. Most unforgivably of all, it comes with 2.5 grams of trans fat—more trans fat than any human should ever have in a day, let alone a child under the age of 12.
If you’re desperately thumbing through the many-paged Cheesecake Factory menu to find a healthier alternative for your little one, we suggest the pepperoni pizzette—one of the few kids’ menu options without trans fat.
On the Border cheese quesadilla
The south-of-the-border cousin of grilled cheese, the quesadilla is a frequent fatty fixture on kids’ menus at Tex-Mex joints. But when it comes to the unhealthiest versions of this fried tortilla oozing with cheese, the chicken quesadilla from On the Border takes the flan.
Weighing in at 1,240 calories with its side of fries, the Tex-Mex chain’s chicken quesadilla meal boasts the highest calorie count of any other dish on this list. And it only gets worse from there: The quesadilla comes with 30 grams of saturated fat and nearly 2,000 milligrams of sodium.
You could diminish the dish’s food-coma-inducing powers by swapping out the fries for a healthier side like the grilled vegetables or salad. Or, skip the quesadilla altogether and let your child spread his or her creative culinary wings with an order of the build-your-own chicken tacos (320 calories and a more humane 4.5 grams of saturated fat).
California Pizza Kitchen Curly Mac ‘n’ Cheese
The California Pizza Kitchen Curly Mac N’ Cheese is yet another classic example of macaroni gone to the dark side. The pasta dish packs in 799 calories, 28 grams of saturated fat, and 1.5 grams of trans fats. Then, it throws in another 760 grams of sodium. But hey, at least the meal is confusingly served with a side of edamame beans (healthy, sure, but also kind of a weird pairing, don’t you think?)
Do your little guy or gal a favor by placing an order for the kids grilled chicken breast, instead. It comes in at 270 calories and a paltry 1.5 grams of saturated fat, plus 30+ grams of protein to boot. Served with a side of either broccoli or fruit, the grilled chicken breast represents a relatively well-rounded meal.
With that said, here’s a little piece of advice: Just don’t order macaroni and cheese from restaurants for your kids, ever, okay? Not only will you, the parent, probably be overcharged, your child could be laden down with fake cheese and fat that will slow them down at Little League practice.
Denny’s Jr. cake batter milkshake
It doesn’t take a nutrition scientist to conclude that the colorful, confettied Jr. cake batter milkshake from Denny’s is unhealthy — but it’s really bad. Topped with whip cream, this shake packs a staggering 730 calories, 77 grams of sugar, and 25 grams of saturated fat.
To put that into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends children between the ages of 2 and 18 should consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. That means one cake batter milkshake from Denny’s contains more than triple their daily recommended amount of sugar.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding your little ones with a sweet treat on special occasions. But reasonable portioning is key—and there’s nothing "reasonable" about this milkshake, despite what the "Jr." label might try and make you believe.
Want a sweet, creamy, less diabetes-inducing substitute for your kiddo when dining at Denny’s? Go with a single scoop of ice cream, which comes in at around 250 calories with 22 grams of sugar and 10 grams of saturated fat.