General Health & Wellness • Apr 09, 2015

Fast Food and Your Kids: What do you really get in that drive-through “kids meal” and are you “happy” about it?

fastfood“I’m hungry, mom. Can you please get me some chicken and French fries?”  This high pitched plea rang out from the back seat of the car with a clear emphasis on the PLEASE.

Sometimes, I strongly dislike those signs for the fast food restaurants. They are never missed by a young child who decides he’s hungry right at that moment. Usually, I will distract and redirect, but on this rare occasion I gave in. I am human. It was past dinner time and we still had an hour drive from the amusement park back to our hotel, part of weekend trip to celebrate my son’s birthday. He had already eaten every piece of fruit and whole grain snack bar we packed during the day.

As I passed the paper bag full of greasy salty food back to his anxious hands, I wondered what I was really passing to him (and also somewhat wishing I had ordered something for myself). I don’t fuss over the very occasional “junk” food, but I was curious to sit down and really see what it was he was eating. He isn’t always the best eater, but of course, on this very active day, he ate every last bite.

So, I looked it up. His bag contained 4 chicken nuggets, 1% white milk, apple slices, and a kid’s size fry.  According to the website for the restaurant we purchased from, my son got the following nutrition from his food:

Calories                      420
Calories from Fat       180
Total Fat                     20g (30%)
Saturated Fat             4.5g (22%)
Trans Fat                    0g
Cholesterol                35mg (12%)
Sodium                       550mg (23%)
Total Carbs                43g (14%)
Sugars                        15g
Protein                        18g
Vitamin A                    500IU (10%)
Vitamin C                    107mg (180%)
Calcium                       350mg (35%)
Iron                              1mg (4%)

Ok, now what does that really mean?

Here’s what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends kids get calorie-wise, ideally spread among each food group for a healthy, balanced diet:


  • 2-3 years: 1,000
  • 4-8: 1,200-1,400
  • 9-13 (female): 1,600
  • 9-13 (male): 1,800
  • 14-18 (female): 1,800
  • 14-18 (male): 2,200

* For active children, calorie requirements may be greater

(taken from

Based on his age, I assume he needs about 1200 calories split by 3 meals and 2 snacks. That means he should take in ~3×300 calorie meals and 2×150 calories snacks.  So this rather minimalist meal, compared to most fast food options, has already given him more calories in a single meal than I would normally aim for. However, I know he didn’t eat a 300 calorie breakfast. We are probably ok overall.


  • 2-3 years: 2 ounces
  • 4-8: 4 ounces
  • 9-13 (female): 5 ounces
  • 9-13 (male): 5 ounces
  • 14-18 (female): 5 ounces
  • 14-18 (male): 6-7 ounces

* For active children, calorie requirements may be greater

Most lean protein has 7-9 grams of protein per ounce so we are on target with 18 grams of protein between the milk and the nuggets providing half of his protein for the day, assuming that isn’t his only protein for the day.


The USDA recommends ~ 23-35% of calories come from fat for children 4-18.  In this meal, 43% of the calories come from fat, so we are starting to see the effect of the fried nuggets and potatoes on the nutrition in this meal.


Children should eat less the 2,300mg of sodium per day. This meal has 550mg. Not as bad as I expected. It can add up quickly.

My take home for this is two-fold:

1) Fast food is not the end of the world on occasion; however, a similar meal made at home using an oven and whole foods would contain more protein, less sodium, less fat, and allow you to add more fruit and vegetables, which are lacking in this mix. It also saves you from having to refrain from ordering something for yourself.

2) Choose your child’s meal for them. This is the meal I chose for my child balancing his wants with his needs. Had he been asked, he would have picked 4 chicken nuggets, double kids fry, and chocolate milk.  A meal that contains more fat, more sugar, more salt, and less vitamins.

Calories                                  550
Calories from Fat                   200
Total Fat                                 23g (35%)
Saturated Fat                         3.5g (18%)
Trans Fat                                0g
Cholesterol                            30 mg (11%)
Sodium                                   620mg (26%)
Total Carbs                            65g (22%)
Dietary Fiber                          4g (16%)
Sugars                                    22g
Protein                                   20g
Vitamin A                               500IU (10%)
Vitamin C                               19mg (30%)
Calcium                                  320mg (30%)
Iron                                         2.5 mg (15%)

Kick it up to a “big kids meal” with a double patty cheese burger, small fries, small soda, and a yogurt squeeze and you can quickly see how this gets out of hand…

Calories                                  790
Calories from Fat                   260
Total Fat                                 28g (44%)
Saturated Fat                         10g (49%)
Trans Fat                                1g
Cholesterol                            80 mg (26%)
Sodium                                   1030mg (43%)
Total Carbs                            110g (37%)
Dietary Fiber                          4g (17%)
Sugars                                    51g
Protein                                   27g
Vitamin A                               480IU (10%)
Vitamin C                               19mg (30%)
Calcium                                  320mg (30%)
Iron                                         2.5 mg (15%)