Share on Facebook

10 Things You Should Never Order off a Kids’ Menu

Finding nutritious options for children on restaurant menus can be especially difficult. Here are some of the worst offenders—from obvious calorie bombs to more surprising, sneaky items—that you shouldn’t order off the kids’ menu, along with healthier alternatives that will still keep your kids happy.

Cute toddler drinking cold drink, Little boy drink soda or soft drink through straw sitting on the chair in English pub, Child waiting for food with bored faceAnn in the uk/Shutterstock

Sodas and fruit juices

When you see a cobalt-blue or neon-green, kiddie-bait carbonated beverage on a kids’ menu, one glance is all it takes to know that it’s far from nutritious. Any type of soda—on a kids’ menu or not—is packed with sugar and devoid of nutrients. More surprisingly, though, fruit juices are really not a healthier alternative, especially ones targeted at children.

“Skip juice as a beverage,” suggests Amanda Baker Lemein, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Chicago. “The simple sugar in juice adds up quickly, with few nutrients in store.” Instead, stick to milk or water. Even—surprise!—chocolate milk is a decent option, since you’re “still incorporating protein and calcium,” says Lemein.  

breaded chicken fingersMateusz Gzik/Shutterstock

Chicken fingers

“Chicken is a healthy food, but not when it’s been breaded and deep-fried,” says Kelly Krikhely, MS, CDN, a New York City–based registered dietitian. Chicken fingers are one of the most popular kids’-menu staples, but most restaurants’ versions are loaded with calories and sodium.

As an alternative, order grilled chicken—the different method of cooking makes a massive difference in nutritional value. If your children are a little older and/or less picky, you could also try ordering a chicken dish from the regular menu and sharing it with them to help expand their tastes! Check out these other suggestions from nutritionists for mealtime with picky eaters.

sliced grilled chicken and creamy herbed sauce over penne pastafarbled/Shutterstock

Pasta with chicken

Cooking Light assessed the best and worst kids’-menu items at nine different restaurants, and at three of them—the Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, and Chili’s—some variation on a chicken-and-pasta dish ranked worst. Meals like these are packed with sodium and contain a huge helping of calories, many of which come from fat. Especially if the chicken is breaded, and/or if cheese is a significant component of the dish, these are items to avoid.

In most cases, even the regular mac-and-cheese options are more nutritious alternatives. Yes, a topping-free pasta dish is a healthier alternative to a salt bomb packed with chicken and cheese. In fact, NBC News names Au Bon Pain and Uno’s Chicago Grill specifically as restaurants where the kids’ macaroni-and-cheese dishes are relatively guilt-free picks. Check out these 8 horrifying restaurant menu items that are basically a heart attack on a plate.

A plate of buttered noodles with dinner rollsMSPhotographic/Shutterstock

Pasta with butter

While it’s an easy, quick choice for a picky eater, a plate full of buttered pasta is also low in nutrition and may simply not be worth your money. Dietitian and mother Lauren Manaker of Nutrition Now Counseling learned this the hard way. “Restaurants usually charge what is equivalent to me buying eight boxes of spaghetti at the grocery store,” she told Reader’s Digest, “and [it] provides about as much nutrition as if I let my daughter eat the free bread and butter for dinner.”

salad mix with avocado and cucumber, with balsamic dressingDream79/Shutterstock

Salads

Salad may not seem to belong on this list—and, true, it is much healthier than the other options. But, as Summer Yule, a registered dietitian and nutrition communications specialist, points out, ordering a “kiddie size” gives you an easy excuse to skimp on the salad (especially if you’re an adult ordering off the kids’ menu)!

“If I want a side salad with my entrée, I would not order a smaller-portioned one off of the kids’ menu,” Yule told Reader’s Digest. “There is really no reason to choose a smaller portion of leafy greens.” Most side salads from the regular menu provide a much more balanced size. Just go easy on the dressing.

Homemade BreadSticks with Marinara Sauce and Italian SpicesBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Carb extravaganzas

It’s no secret that carb-loaded foods such as bread and rice tend to be favorites among young children and make easy choices to satisfy picky eaters. While there’s no need to avoid carbohydrates altogether, Lemein recommends limiting the portions that you order. “Try to balance out the meal—instead of refined carbs on refined carbs, look to add in any whole-grain options whenever available,” she suggests. “A good example would be skipping white rice and choosing brown instead, or adding a protein to a pasta dish instead of a breadstick side.” Learn about 10 unhealthy ingredients that could be hiding in your kid’s lunch.

Homemade Fried Mozzarella Sticks with Marinara SauceBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

“Munchie” samplers

If fried chicken is bad, then platters containing an array of fried goodies—mozzarella sticks, french fries, chicken nuggets, and other kid favorites—are the ultimate nutritional no-no. Unfortunately, though, some combination of these items—marketed as a “sampler” or a “combo”—will likely be on the menu, tempting your kids, the next time you eat out. “Skip fried food if possible. Although some fried items also deliver protein, the fat used to fry the food is often not a heart-healthy fat, even for little ones,” Lemein warns. Learn about 15 things you should never eat at a restaurant, period.

homemade grilled cheese sandwich for breakfastOlga Miltsova/Shutterstock

Grilled cheeses

Yes, the grilled-cheese options at some places—Panera Bread, for instance, where you can pair a half-sandwich with a bowl of tomato soup—are not so bad. But as a rule, kids’ grilled-cheese sandwiches tend to be slathered with enough oil to put a breakfast platter’s worth of bacon to shame, and way more than you want your kid ingesting in a single sitting. Watch out for these other toxic things you didn’t know you were feeding your kids.

Chocolate Brownie with Ice Cream and Hazelnut Powder.Alp Aksoy/Shutterstock

Massive sundae desserts

Don’t worry, we’re not trying to be the dessert police. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating a special occasion by ordering dessert at a restaurant. But the all-too-common “ice cream with brownie” or “ice cream with giant cookie” dessert offerings, even ones aimed at kids, are massive sugar-and-calorie bombs. Many even contain way more calories than the actual kids’ entrées!

If you have more than one child, consider having your children share a dessert instead of purchasing one for each youngster. Or consider different dessert options—head to a nearby ice-cream shop, or even keep a half gallon of ice cream in your freezer at home. With those options, you’ll save money, and you’ll be able to keep a watchful eye on portions.

wendys burger squareSilverdust/Shutterstock

Fast-food burgers

OK, sure, these are things you probably want to avoid ordering off of any menu, period. But when it comes to kids’ meals, the cheeseburgers consistently rank as the worst, pretty much across the board. For instance, Woman’s Day assessed the most and least healthy options at seven franchises, and at four of them—McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Dairy Queen—a kids’ hamburger or cheeseburger was voted unhealthiest.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid eating at these places altogether, though. Woman’s Day found that many of the healthiest options were some kind of chicken meal, such as a wrap or a grilled drumstick. Even chicken nuggets aren’t bad choices—they’re lower in calories than full-size fingers, and if you order them with a side of apple slices or applesauce, available at many fast-food joints, you’ve got a pretty balanced kids’ meal. Next, find out how the McDonald’s Happy Meal has changed over the years.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been storytelling since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. Her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine in spring 2017. Meghan is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.