By Vanessa Lynskey, MPH
Senior Project Manager, Restaurant Initiative, Child Obesity180
Let’s take a quick quiz. How many calories should there be in an average child’s restaurant meal, including an entrée, side dish, and drink?
A. 600-800 calories
B. 400-600 calories
C. 200-400 calories
If you answered B, congratulations! You are correct. The recommended
per-meal calorie range for kids’ meals in restaurants is 400 to 600, depending on the age, sex, and physical activity level of the child. But if you got it wrong, or even if you got it right because of a lucky guess, you’re not alone.
In July 2014, researchers at ChildObesity180
used an online survey to ask approximately 1,200 parents of 5-to-12-year-olds to estimate the number of calories recommended for a kid’s meal as well as how confident they were in their answers. Only 35 percent answered in the correct range, while roughly one-third underestimated and one-third overestimated. Furthermore, only about one in four parents were confident in their answers, and just 10 percent were both accurate and
The survey also explored the influence of parents’ socio-demographic characteristics, such as income, and frequency of eating restaurant food, on correct answers. Parents who dined frequently at restaurants with their children, had lower incomes, or lived in urban areas had lower odds of answering correctly. Interestingly, those who dined frequently with their children at restaurants reported higher confidence in their answers—but were more likely to answer incorrectly.
To keep a children’s meal within the recommended calorie range, small changes can make a big difference. “You have to find what works for your kids,” says Helena, a mother in Springfield, MA. “For me, it was letting them choose between two healthy options.” The next time you’re in a restaurant with your child, try these simple changes:
Order from the kids’ menu, where portions are more likely to be right-sized for children.
Replace soda with water or low-fat milk.
Order smaller sizes (i.e., small instead of medium fries) or share larger items.
Choose grilled rather than fried foods.
Limit high-sodium condiments like ketchup.
Choose fruit for a dessert.
These are easy ways to cut out excess calories and can help encourage healthy habits overall. Teaching children to make smart choices now helps lay a foundation for a lifetime of good health. For more simple swaps, visit YoureTheMom.org