Fried chicken fingers, hamburgers, French fries and sugary sodas dominate children's menus in most chain restaurants, and most kids' meals fall short of meeting basic nutritional standards, a nonprofit health advocacy group said Thursday.
Some 97% of nearly 3,500 kids' meals analyzed don't meet basic nutritional standards, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in its report "Kids' Meals: Obesity on the Menu."
What's more, 91% don't meet the National Restaurant Association's own nutritional guidelines for its Kids LiveWell program, a voluntary program for restaurant owners, according to the report.
"Given that 1 out of 3 American children are overweight or obese, it's pretty stunning that the top chain restaurants are still serving up the same old fried chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries and soda," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the CSPI and lead author of the report.
The worst offender: Applebee's grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with fries and 2% chocolate milk. The meal came in at a whopping 1,200 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat.
That's followed by Chili's pepperoni pizza meal with homestyle fries and a soda, which packs 1,120 calories, and Dairy Queen's fried chicken strip meal with fries, a slushy drink and an ice cream bar, with 1,030 calories.
The CSPI nutritional standard was no more than 430 calories per meal, while the Kids LiveWell standard is 600 calories. Standards for both groups included no more than 770 milligrams of sodium per meal.
Nineteen restaurant chains offering kids meals, or 56%, fail to offer any meals meeting CSPI's standards, the report says, and nine do not have one meal meeting the Kids LiveWell standards.
"It's as if the restaurant industry hasn't heard there is an obesity epidemic," Wootan said.
In response to the report, Applebee's and Chili's pointed out that while one meal may have been singled out, they do offer healthy options for children.
"Although this report focuses on one sandwich from our children's menu, the full Applebee's children's menu provides many options that are significantly lower in calories, fat and sodium" and meet the Kids LiveWell standards, said spokesman Kevin Mortesen. The chain's grilled chicken sandwich meal for kids, with steamed broccoli and apple or grape juice, totals only 355 calories, he said.
"We know Applebee's best serves our guests by providing a wide selection of dishes, and we'll continue to do so by expanding the number of options for kids by the end of this year."
Chili's says it offers a number of lower-calorie, lower-sodium and low-fat options on both its adult and Pepper Pals child menus, and that guests may customize and modify their orders -- substituting side items, for instance.
"We do our part on our Pepper Pals menu to meet these requirements (for a well-balanced meal) by offering choices, including grilled chicken, salad with low-fat ranch dressing, fresh pineapples, steamed broccoli and celery sticks," the company said in a statement.
Chili's was an "inaugural partner" of the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program, according to the statement, and "continues to support this organization which empowers parents to make informed decisions about their children's meals as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle."
The National Restaurant Association, meanwhile, touted the program. Joy Dubost, the association's director of nutrition and healthy living, called Kids LiveWell "a first-of-its-kind, voluntary initiative that helps parents and children select healthful menu options when dining out at nearly 40,000 locations nationwide.
"The program, now with more than 120 restaurant brands, has achieved significant momentum in just 18 short months ... participating restaurants offer and promote healthful meals for children," Dubost said.
Dairy Queen did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment on the report.
The Center for Consumer Freedom issued a statement criticizing the report, saying childhood obesity "is a result of a myriad of factors, not just restaurant offerings. Regulating kids' menus to only offer quinoa salads isn't going to make any any measurable weight difference in America's youth."
"Instead of finger-wagging at restaurants for media attention, CSPI should be promoting walking to school and physical education courses," said J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. "... It is disingenuous to suggest some sort of French fry prohibition on kids' menus will be the cure-all to children's weight problems."
The CSPI describes itself as a Washington-based nonprofit health advocacy group focusing on nutrition and food safety. Of the kids' meals it analyzed, 86% contained more than 430 calories, and 50% have more than 600 calories, the report says. About two-thirds -- 66% -- exceeded the sodium standard.
The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans states
that children ages 4 to 10 consume between 400 and 670 calories at each meal, depending on their age, gender and physical activity levels.
While some chains offer non-soda and fruit options, "soft drinks and fried potatoes are still more common options on children's menus,"' according to the report. The CSPI recommendations include offering more fruit and vegetable options and making those the default side dishes with every children's meal.
However, the news isn't all bad, according to the report. All eight of Subway's Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI's nutrition criteria.
The chain also was lauded for not offering sugary drinks as an option with kids' meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water and apple slices with its child-sized subs. However the group recommended that Subway increase the whole-grain content of its breads and continue to lower sodium.
The best Subway option: a kids' roast beef sub, apple slices and 1% milk, which comes in at 395 calories.
Other healthy choices: Burger King's oatmeal, IHOP's whole wheat blueberry pancakes, Outback Steakhouse's kids sirloin with apples and grapes, and Olive Garden's cheese ravioli with broccoli and orange juice.
"Four years ago we found that only 1% of kids' meals at the top chain restaurants were healthy, and now 3% are healthy," Wootan said. "So there is a tiny bit of improvement, but it's very, very small."
Sodium rates also have shown improvement, she said. In 2008, only 15% of restaurant meals met the sodium standard; now 35% do.
The bottom line, she said: There's a lot of work to do.
"In order for parents to feed their children healthfully, restaurants need to help," Wootan said. The group encourages participation in the Kids LiveWell program, and says restaurants should offer more whole grains and get rid of soda and other sugary drinks.
"We know they can do it, because some are already doing it," she said.