by Faye McCray
The truth is, there are no healthy fast food chains. There just aren’t. Anything with a drive-thru attached typically has sugary drinks and an obscene amount of fat and sodium. The bigger truth is, however, that sometimes as parents fast food is the only option. Between unexpected traffic jams, late night work hours and extracurricular activities, your options may be fast food or starve. If you must get in that line, here are a list of the best of the worst options at 6 popular fast food chains.
Note: According to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Heart Association, kids should have between 19-30g of sugar per day and 1,500mg of sodium per day. Children ages 4 to 8 need 33 to 78 grams of fat daily; kids ages 9 to 13 require 39 to 101 grams of fat daily. Sources of healthy, unsaturated dietary fats for children include vegetable oils, purified omega-3 oils, avocados, olives, peanut butter, nuts and seeds. Saturated, unhealthy fats are found in high-fat meats, lard, butter, cream, ice cream and full-fat dairy products, such as whole milk and cheese.
Founded in 1961 by Conservative Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, Chick fil A boasts an alternative to red meat with their famous slogan “Eat Mor Chikin”. As a native New Yorker, I hadn’t even heard of Chick fil A until I moved to D.C. for school. As a broke student, it quickly became my go-to spot for quick and tasty meals. Now that I am a parent (in my thirties with a slower metabolism), I try to avoid fast food where possible. However, when the family and I are on a long road trip and we are in desperate search of food, Chick fil A is my typical choice.
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Hands down, the healthiest option for your tiny humans is the 6 ct Grilled Nuggets Kid’s Meal 100 cal, 3g of fat, 200mg sodium, 1g of sugar (for comparison, the 6ct fried nuggets are 200cal, 10g of fat and 790mg of sodium), Fruit Cup side, 30 cal, 0g sodium, 7g of sugar (for comparison, waffle fries are 310cal, 16g fat and 140mg of sodium), and to drink, Water or Honest Kids Apple Juice 40cal, 9g of sugar (believe it or not, a small kids lemonade is 170cal and 43g of sugar!)
For Dessert? If you must, the best bet is the Small Icedream cone, 170 cal, 115mg of sodium, and 25g of sugar. It is by no means healthy but it has the lowest sugar content.
Founded in 1965 by Fred DeLuca, Subway is one of the fastest growing franchises in the world. My kids aren’t crazy about the options at Subway but really enjoy their kids totes and cookies.
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The best option on the menu is the Kids Veggie Delite, 150 cal, 1.5 of total fat, 190mg of sodium but if your kids want something heartier, the second best option is the Kids Turkey Breast, 180 cal, 2.0g of fat, and 430mg of sodium. Choose the Mini Wheat bread 140 cal, 1.5g of fat, 180mg of sodium. The Mini Italian bread is slightly lower calorically but it doesn’t have the health benefits of wheat bread. The best option for dressing is none but if you must, the Honey Mustard has 60 cal, 1g of fat, 240mg of sodium and 11g of sugar. The Sweet Onion is pretty much a tie with 80 cal, 170mg of sodium and 16g of sugar. For toppings, I’d skip the cheese and stick with veggies (avoiding pickles and olives due to sodium content). For a side, the Apple Slices are a clear choice with 35 cal, 7g of sugar and to drink, Water or Juice Box, 100 cal and 21g of sugar.
For Dessert? If you must, all Cookies are pretty much created equal at Subway. They range between 200-230cal, 14-20g of sugar and 100-130mg of sodium.
Founded in 1987 as the St. Louis Bread Company, Panera was purchased by Au Bon Pain in 1993 and renamed. The name is a combination of the Italian words ‘Pane’ meaning bread and ‘Era’ meaning time – time of bread. That sounds pretty darn amazing to me. There is a Panera on pretty much every street corner where we live so it is often our go-to restaurant in a pinch.
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The healthiest option on the kids menu is the Kids Seasonal Green Salad. It is only 90cal, 75mg of sodium and 7g of sugar. But – if your kids are anything like mine, the salad thing probably isn’t happening. Unfortunately, the Kids Turkey Sandwich and Peanut Butter & Jelly are a distant second. While the Turkey Sandwich is the lowest caloric sandwich on the Kid’s menu at 310 cal, it also has 11g of fat and 820 mg of sodium! Believe it or not, by comparison with the rest of the menu, it is actually on the low end (the Grilled Cheese has 1090mg of sodium and the Smoked Ham Sandwich has 1210mg, yikes). The Peanut Butter & Jelly has 400 calories and about half the sodium of the Turkey at 460mg but sadly has 19g of sugar and 17g of fat (which may not be as bad as it sounds, read more here). Friendly warning, I would stay away from soups and pastas due to the sodium content – especially the Mac and Cheese which has an insane 1100 mg of sodium in one serving! The healthiest side is definitely the Apple. While the yogurt tube has only 60 calories, it has 10g of sugar.
For Dessert? If you must, the Petite Chocolate Chipper is your best bet. Those are the cookies that come about 5-6 to a bag usually available at the register. One cookie has 100 cal, 5 g of fat, 8g of sugar. For comparison, the full chocolate chipper has 440 cal, 22g of fat and a whopping 33g of sugar!
Founded in 1969 by Dave Thomas, Wendy’s is the world’s third largest hamburger chain. I’ll always have a soft spot for Wendy’s. When I was a teenager, I was a camp counselor at the YMCA in Bellerose, New York, and there was a Wendy’s nearby. I would go there on my lunch breaks with fellow counselors and devour their grilled chicken sandwiches smothered in honey mustard sauce. I don’t live near one now, but I know for some, Wendy’s is still an option.
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If you can’t get your kid to eat salad, your best best is probably the 4 Piece Chicken Nuggets, 180 cal, 13g of fat, 390mg of sodium. Though with 13g of fat, you probably want to make Wendy’s a really, really rare option. The Grilled Chicken Wrap has slightly less fat at 11g but an insane 620mg of sodium. For the side, Apple Slices, 35cal, omg sodium, 7g of sugar, and to drink, Water or Honest Kids Fruit Punch, 35 cal, 15mg sodium, 8g of sugar.
For Dessert? If you must, the Jr. Vanilla Frosty, 190 cal, 95mg sodium, 27g of sugar. Not at all healthy but the least bad among pretty bad options.
Founded in 1940 as a barbecue restaurant by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, McDonald’s is the world’s largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants and the world’s second largest private employer.
As a kid, I lived for happy meals but I have watched one too many YouTube videos about what’s in that stuff to ever sit in one of their drive-thrus again. However, as one of the most recognizable chains, for some, McDonald’s may be unavoidable.
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When looking at fat and sodium content (and if you can’t get your kid to eat salad), your best bet is likely the 4 Piece Chicken Nuggets, 190cal, 12g of fat, 360mg of sodium, 0g of sugar. At 12g of fat, it is by no means healthy. However, when compared to the other options on the menu, it is the best choice. The Honey Mustard Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap has less fat at 8g but it is also 650mg of sodium. For a side, stick with the Apple Slices 15 cal, 0 sugar (they probably didn’t count fruit sugar) and sodium (kids fries are 110 cal, 8g of fat, 65g of sodium), and for a beverage, Water or Minute Maid Apple Juice Box, 80 cal, 19g of sugar (thats a lot of sugar).
For Dessert? If you must, Kiddie Cone, 45 cal, 1.5 g of fat and 6g of sugar.
Note: There has been some controversy about McDonald’s cooking oils and the content of their nuggets. I’d read more on McD’s chicken nuggets here and here before feeding them to your kids.
Founded in 1958 by brothers and students at Wichita State University, Dan and Frank Carney, Pizza Hutt is owned by Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, etc.), one of the world’s largest restaurant companies.
After my parents were divorced, my phenomenal single mom returned to school and got both her Bachelor’s and Masters. While she was incredibly wonderful, inspiring and present, she didn’t always have the time to cook. Enter, Pizza Hut, the staple of my childhood meals. My mouth waters just thinking about that buttery crust. As an adult, I don’t live near one, but I know plenty of folks still do.
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I have to start by saying the sodium content at Pizza Hut, like the soups and pastas at Panera, is through the roof! I’m pretty sure they are just throwing massive amounts of salt in the air and catching it on pizza stones. With that said, by slice your best bet overall are the Small Hand Tossed Pies with no processed meats (sausage, pepperoni, etc.) and real veggies. A single Veggie Lover’s Small Hand Tossed Slice is 120cal, 4g of fat and 260mg of sodium not bad when you compare it with the the 1, 110mg of sodium in one Large Pan slice of the Pepperoni’s Lovers!
Do keep in mind, the nutritional content for Pizza Hut is measured by a single slice. I don’t know anyone who just has one (even kids), calculate accordingly!
For Dessert? Just don’t. Between the carbs and fat, your kids will probably just be overeating. I’d suggest a nice after dinner walk instead!
Note: The options were measured by calories, fat, sodium and sugar content. It did not include a review of artificial ingredients or other chemicals used in the making of these foods. Many of these options, when combined, exceed recommended daily intake for sodium, sugar and/or fat. As always, use your best judgment when making choices for your children. When possible, avoid fast food.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.