Do you ever pull up to the drive-through and wonder…” wait, how many times have my kids eaten fast food this week?” If you’re looking for healthy fast food for kids, we’ve got some suggestions for what to order. We even have healthier fast food copycat recipes you can make at home!Jump to Recipe
The Truth About Fast Food for Kids
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, During 2013–2016, 36.3% of children and adolescents consumed fast food on a given day. Unfortunately, traditional fast food often contains quite a few empty calories. A hot dog with french fries and a large glass of lemonade can easily cover more than half of your child’s daily calorie requirements, but that meal only provides a few vitamins and minerals. Fast food has been associated with higher caloric intake and poorer diet quality in children and adolescents.
But there’s hope! Healthy alternatives are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s just as easy to grab healthy meals and snacks to-go. Whether you’re towing a kid with a big appetite home from soccer practice or you’re taking a Saturday off from cooking, you don’t have to sacrifice nutrition for convenience.
Healthy Fast Food for Kids: What Are the Best Options?
Many fast-food chains have catered to the needs of parents and kids who are looking for healthier alternatives to fried monstrosities. You’ll often find options for sides like fruit cups, yogurt, apple slices, veggies, and salads. It also helps to pick a drink like water or milk instead of soda with all that added sugar.
While you may be tempted to think that salad is one of the healthiest menu items, think again. Because of the enormous portion sizes and toppings, it can often end up being just as full of calories, fat, and sodium as a burger or burrito. At Panera, the Chicken Cobb With Avocado with dressing packs in 870 calories, 72 grams of fat, 1050 mg of sodium, and 275 mg of cholesterol. Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad with dressing has 780 calories, 38 grams of fat, 1590 mg of sodium, and 115 mg of cholesterol. So don’t insist your kid try the salad simply because it seems “healthier.” Nobody will win that fight.
The name of the game is smaller portion sizes and ditching the add-ons. A six-count nugget entree isn’t a big deal. Nutritionally, it’s actually pretty reasonable. What will turn it into an unhealthy choice is the fries, soda, and ice cream you order along with it. With that in mind, here are some healthy fast food options for kids at some of the most popular chains:
One of Chick-Fil-A’s greatest decisions they’ve ever made: grilled nuggets. For those of us who have dietary restrictions (like being gluten-free), or trying to cut out fried food, it can often be hard to go on a trip to Chick-Fil-A, just to order yet another salad or even worse, just watch everyone eat. Fortunately, their Grilled Nuggets Kids Meal comes in at 190-220 calories. Their Grilled Cool Wrap is another good option at 350 calories, and it’s delicious!
What? How could a fast food joint that makes its buck off famously greasy and delicious food possibly have healthy choices for kids? Turns out, a meal from their kids’ menu with chicken tenders, apple fries, and low-fat milk is only about 390 calories.
While Subway has gotten a bad rap in the last few years for being less of a “health food” chain than they advertise, surprisingly, some items on their kids’ menu deliver when it comes to healthier choices. Their Turkey Breast Kids Meal (160 calories) and Veggie Delight Kids Meal (130 calories) are healthier options. Grab a side of apple slices and milk to drink, and you have a pretty healthy meal!
Known for their very large burritos, Chipotle’s regular burrito clocks in at about 1085-1550 calories. And that’s without the free chips that you’ll probably eat too many of! Fortunately, their kids’ meals are scaled-down. If you didn’t know they had a kids’ menu, it’s because they don’t advertise it. With a Build Your Own Kids Meal, you can get tacos or a quesadilla, a drink, and chips — all for $3.75 to $4.75. It’ll be about 570 calories. Chipotle also makes great salads with lots of spice and flavor. The chicken or veggie salad will end up around 450 calories.
Of course, we had to include some options at America’s favorite burger joint. While their hamburger doesn’t provide too much nutritional value other than protein and carbs, the smaller version in the Happy Meal is fine every once in a while as a treat. If you get apple slices as a side, it ends up being around 475 calories. Their Artisan Grilled Sandwich (without mayo) is also a great option at 380 calories.
Although known for decadent indulgences like mac-n-cheese in a bowl literally made of bread–if you’re more conscious at Panera, you can easily find things that won’t be your kid’s whole caloric budget in a day. The Kid’s Turkey Sandwich is a great alternative to high-calorie options, and it’s 280 calories. You can also do the “Pick Two” deal with a Half Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich and a Cup of Ten Vegetable Soup, which only comes in at 380 calories. Panera is great because you can order half portions and get an apple for a side instead of bread.
Recipe Ideas for Healthy Fast Food for Kids
If you’re still unsure about the healthier options that fast food restaurants have for kids, don’t stress. We’ve got fast-food copycats that you can make at home, so everybody’s happy! You just can’t beat fresh food!
Oven-Baked French Fries
For each person, cut about one cup of potato slices. You can peel the potatoes beforehand or proceed with the skin as desired. Then pour the cut potatoes into a bowl, add a tablespoon of olive, avocado, or coconut oil, and stir. Preheat the oven to 425 °F, place the chips on a baking tray lined with baking paper and bake for about 30 minutes. Then add salt, garlic, paprika powder, or another favorite seasoning.
Nothing beats the convenience of Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, or even the frozen pizza section of the grocery store. However, the quality of ingredients and portion sizes can be hard to regulate, especially when it comes to sodium. That’s why making your own pizza at home can be a great alternative. Trader Joe’s makes an excellent pre-made pizza dough that the kiddos will love rolling out (or tossing if you’re really brave). Choose a lower-sodium pizza sauce, low-fat cheese, fresh toppings, and bake to perfection in the oven! The best part is you can make half the pizza with adult toppings like jalepeños, artichokes, spinach, etc. Who knows? You may even be able to get the kids to take a bite of your “adult” pizza.
It’s hard to say ‘no’ when the kids notice you’re cruising past Taco Bell or Del Taco. With alternatives like grilled chicken tacos, the kids will be asking for seconds! Traditionally, fast food Mexican restaurants aren’t known for packing in the veggies. The most you’ll usually find is a handful of iceberg lettuce. With homemade tacos, you get to control which ingredients go inside that tortilla, and that can be anything! Whether it’s fresh bell peppers from the garden, arugula, or diced tomatoes, you take control of the menu!
Air Fryer Chicken Nuggets
You never know what kind of preservatives and additives go into the chicken nuggets you get from a fast-food joint. But if you make your own nuggets at home, I have two words for you: air fryer. Fresh chicken breast, cut into nuggets, seasoned, dipped in melted butter, and then in breadcrumbs, and baked for 9 minutes in the air fryer without any oil is bound to be a hit with kids and adults!
Air Fryer Fast Food Copycat Chicken Nuggets
- 2 6 oz. chicken breasts cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup dill pickle juice
- 1 egg
- 3 Tbsp milk
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 Tbsp corn starch
- 2 Tbsp powdered sugar omit if you want healthier nuggets
- 1 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp paprika
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp onion powder
- non-stick cooking spray
Air Fryer Fast Food Copycat Chicken Nuggets
- Place chicken pieces and pickle juice in a plastic bag. Close and place in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.
- In a shallow bowl whisk together egg and milk.
- In another bowl, whisk together flour, corn starch, powdered sugar, salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Set Aside.
- Grease the Air Fryer basket with a little bit of oil spray. Remove chicken pieces from the refrigerator and coat in the egg mixture, then the flour mixture, then shake off any excess flour and place them in the basket until air fryer basket is full. Make sure none of the pieces are overlapping or touching.
- Close the air fryer basket and cook on 360 degrees F for 12 minutes, flipping them halfway through.
- After 12 minutes, increase the heat to 400 degrees F and cook for 2 more minutes.
- Remove and serve with your favorite dipping sauce.
There’s nothing inherently bad about burgers. We all get a craving every once in a while for this classic American entreé. When you make them at home, you can have much more control over portion sizes. Use lean ground beef, smaller patties, and toppings like avocado and tomatoes, which add some nutrients. Substitute a whole grain bun, and you have a high-protein meal that you can feel good about serving your kiddos.
For the Kid With a Sweet Tooth
If your kid always asks for a dessert when you get fast food, that’s where the sugar can really add up. Make them something special at home like a raspberry and blueberry parfait with toppings like almonds, cacao nibs, hazelnuts, oats, or granola. When they’re snacking on a treat like this, they’ll get some antioxidants, protein, calcium, and nutrients that you won’t typically find in fast food desserts and snacks. It can be hard to convince them that a yogurt parfait is better than a soft-serve ice cream cone, but you have to try, right?
Moderation Is the Name of the Game
If you’re a busy parent, fast food can be a lifesaver, especially on hectic weeknights when the pantry is empty. But it’s completely understandable that you’re concerned about your kid’s nutritional needs and health. It’s important that they learn healthy lifestyle choices early. Don’t forget to let them enjoy a treat every once in a while, though! What is your favorite healthy fast food for kids? Share your tips and recipes on FamilyApp!