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How to choose from a fast-food menu for kids

| Monday, April 18, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
In this Thursday, July 31, 2014, file photo, a customer walks past a statue of Ronald McDonald on display outside a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing.
In this Thursday, July 31, 2014, file photo, a customer walks past a statue of Ronald McDonald on display outside a McDonald's restaurant in Beijing.
Elizabeth Meinert, MS, RDN, LDN  Clinical Dietitian at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
Elizabeth Meinert, MS, RDN, LDN Clinical Dietitian at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

As restaurant chains prepare to meet federal menu-labeling requirements, some are reducing calorie counts for kids menu items. But a group of researchers found that while calorie counts may be going down, levels of fat, saturated fat and sodium are not. Their findings were published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Elizabeth Meinert, clinical dietitian at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, takes our questions:

Is it more “OK” for children to eat fast food than adults?

As the study shows, there are steps being taken to improve food choices at restaurants. However, the study also shows that meals can meet calorie recommendations but fail to meet fat, saturated fat and sodium recommendations. Being mindful about the individual food choices and being mindful about choosing restaurants that provide more healthy options is important.

Fast food doesn't have to mean unhealthy food. Having a home-cooked meal just isn't realistic for some families because of cost or inconvenience. Fast food can fit into many families' lifestyles but in healthier ways, such as avoiding sugary drinks, large portion sizes and sides that are high in fat.

How much is too much?

Pay attention to the portion size and overall balance of the meal. All children (and adults) should make half of their meals fruits or vegetables. Luckily, fast food and full-service restaurants are making those choices more readily available.

When ordering fast food for my children, how should I evaluate menu items' nutritional content (how important are calories vs. fat, sodium, etc.)?

Total calories might not always tell us where the calories come from. Avoiding fat, especially saturated fat, and sodium are important. Fresh fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy are lacking in our kids' diets — they are nutrient-dense but low in fats, added sugars and sodium. When possible, look for individual food items that have less than 5 grams of fat and less than 10 grams of sugar. Apple slices or a fruit cup have less sodium than french fries, and low-fat milk is more nutrient-dense than juice or soda.

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