If you’re a parent, you know that the school year and all the extracurricular activities that come along with it can make weekdays extra busy—not to mention the weekends full of sports, playdates, and parties to attend. In a perfect world, you’d have the time, energy, and resources to prepare healthy food for your kids at every meal, but when life gets busy that may not always be possible.
For the busiest days when you’re in a bind, fast food may be an easy, affordable, and accessible solution for making sure your kids have something to eat. Unfortunately, a lot of fast food is full of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar, which can make it harmful if consumed on a regular basis.
In an effort to learn more about healthier fast-food options busy parents can get for their kids in a pinch, we asked dietitians to weigh in on the meals they recommend. Read on, and for more health tips check out 9 Best Fast-Food Deals That Feed the Whole Family.
Chick-fil-A might be famous for its chicken sandwich, but they also provide plenty of healthy, nutrient-dense meal options as well.
“A kids’ meal with grilled chicken nuggets, a side of fruit, and milk is a nutrient-dense meal that isn’t loaded with saturated fat. It is rare to find a fast-food meal that isn’t fried, and this one is appropriately portioned for little tummies,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, and author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility. “While the nuggets are on the higher side when it comes to sodium, they can be a part of a healthy diet as long as the rest of the day is relatively lower in this mineral.”
Some people may not think of Chipotle as fast food. However, if you have the time to get out of the car and go inside, you can be in and out of the Mexican restaurant with a healthy kids meal in about 15 minutes or less.
“I love the kids ‘build your own’ option at Chipotle because you can keep it really simple and also get fresh, healthful ingredients,” says Kacie Barnes, RD. “You can get options like chicken, brown rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, and guacamole. All things I would happily serve regularly to my kids! The thing I would look out for is the sodium because that can quickly add up, especially when adding salsas to the meal.”
Subway has a kids’ menu that includes a four-inch sub sandwich served on mini Hearty Multigrain bread with fresh veggies, a side of applesauce, and a choice of milk or Honest Kids Fruit Punch. On the sandwich, your child can choose between black forest ham, turkey, roast beef, or go totally meat-free with a Veggie Delite. This meal keeps saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium fairly low and provides a boost of protein, as well.
Starbucks is another option that people may not think of when it comes to needing a quick, cheap meal. However, you can grab a yummy snack for your kids while you sip on that PSL.
“Many of [Starbucks’] protein boxes are kid-friendly and have a good mix of healthy ingredients,” says Barnes. “I would also recommend their oatmeal with blueberries, but I’d skip the two squirts of agave syrup it comes with to limit the added sugar, or cut it down to one. It comes with nuts too for a protein and healthy fat boost.”
It feels a bit strange to see McDonald’s on a list of healthy fast food, but grabbing a Happy Meal and making some alterations can make it a decent option when alternatives are limited.
If you choose the chicken nuggets, switch out the fries for apple slices. Also, if you swap the soda for a bottle of milk or water instead, your kids will still get some protein, fiber, and other helpful nutrients while keeping their saturated fat lower than some other fast-food options. Again, this meal isn’t exactly “healthy” enough that we recommend making it a staple, but it’s a safe choice for the days when you need a quick, cheap meal on the go.