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Your healthiest fast food choices

By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent
A classic McDonalds Happy Meal has about 650 calories -- more than half the amount a preschooler should eat in one day.
A classic McDonalds Happy Meal has about 650 calories -- more than half the amount a preschooler should eat in one day.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Studies show that 84 percent of parents take children to fast food at least once a week
  • Only 12 meal options of the more than 3,000 tested passed the nutrition test for a preschooler
  • There are some healthy options at fast food restaurants, for both you and your child

(CNN) -- Toby Amidor remembers well -- but not fondly -- her child's meltdown over a bottle of Yoo-hoo.

Amidor, a mother of three, was making her order at a pizza restaurant, when her son, Schoen, who was then around 4 years old, proceeded to have a fit because she wanted him to drink water with his meal and he wanted a Yoo-hoo. His friend was with them, and his mom was letting him order a Yoo-hoo -- why couldn't he have one, too?

"He really had a major breakdown," says Amidor. "It was embarrassing. People were starting to look at us."

But a temper tantrum didn't deter Amidor. A registered dietitian and nutrition expert for the Food Network, she was not about to be bullied by a preschooler.

"I took him outside and gave him a stern talking to," says Amidor, who says she's not crazy about the sugar content of the chocolate-flavored drink. "I told him if he wanted to stay with his friend, he'd have to stop having a fit."

It worked. Schoen calmed down. "He changed his attitude quickly," she says.

With billions spent in advertising high-fat, sugary foods to children, it's no wonder parents have to take a kid outside for a good talking-to to persuade them to eat the healthy stuff. It's a battle parents face often: According to a new study from Yale University, 84 percent of parents take children to fast food restaurants at least once a week.

To get your little one to order healthier options, you have to know two things. First, you have to know what those options are. They're not exactly plentiful, according to the Yale study, which says of the more than 3,000 children's meals options they examined, only 12 of them passed the nutrition test for a preschooler.

Secondly, you have to know the right tricks to convince your little one (who's sometimes being a little monster) to stop having a fit and eat the apples instead of the French fries.

Toby Amidor's children, Schoen and his sisters Ellena (left) and Micah.
Toby Amidor's children, Schoen and his sisters Ellena (left) and Micah.

Below are healthier options for your child at popular fast food joints, and advice from seasoned moms about how to do the convincing, and also some healthier options for you to eat at these restaurants.

Part One: Healthier fast food options for your child

First, two points of reference.

One, a classic McDonalds Happy Meal with a cheeseburger, fries, and a soda is 650 calories. Two, preschoolers are supposed to eat about 1,200 calories a day, and elementary school-age children about 1,600 calories a day, according to the USDA, which has a list of recommended caloric intake for children by age and activity level. If you want to know your child's recommended weight, see this BMI calculator for kids.

Here are five healthy fast food options for kids according to the Yale study.

1. Subway veggie delite sandwich

Get it on wheat bread with no cheese, and with apple slices and you're looking at 285 calories (that's with juice) or 345 calories (with a low-fat milk).

2. Subway roast beef sandwich

With wheat bread and apple slices and without cheese, this meal is 335 calories.

3. Burger King macaroni and cheese

Get the apple slices (no caramel dipping sauce) and fat-free milk and it's 285 calories.

4. KFC grilled chicken drumstick

Corn on the cob, unsweet tea, and a cheese stick makes this a 270-calorie meal.

5. Sonic junior burger

Apple slices and unsweet tea make this a 350-calorie meal.

Part Two: How to get your kids to ditch the fries for the apple slices

1. Put your foot down

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When her son had a fit over the Yoo-hoo, Amidor made a threat (loss of playdate with friend), and she meant it. She even took him outside to get his undivided attention and to let him know she was serious.

"Lots of parents give in to kids very, very easily," says Amidor, an adjunct professor at Teacher's College at Columbia University and mother of three young children.

2. Bribe them

Kim Orlando, founder of TravelingMom.com, isn't embarrassed to admit she offered cash incentives to get her children to eat better on a recent cross-country trip with her three children, ages 12, 10, and 8.

"I realized that if I didn't do something, they would be eating chicken nuggets and fries from Connecticut to California," she wrote in an email. "I didn't want to fight with them every time we stopped for a meal, so I decided to bribe them. I told them that if they didn't eat ANY chicken nuggets the ENTIRE trip, I would pay them 20 bucks each. It worked like a charm."

Her children turned it into a competition, seeing who could find the best alternatives. Her oldest boy, Dario, fell in love with Caesar salad, Sophia became the "BLT queen," and her youngest, Romano chose pasta.

3. Have them order off the adult menu

It's more expensive than the kids' menu, and the portions may be too plentiful, but there are more options, too, Orlando notes. You can always have them split one order, or take home the extra.

4. No toy for you!

Really, it's all about the toy, isn't it? Tell your kids they can't get the toy that comes with the kid's meal unless they order a healthy meal. The city of San Francisco has passed an ordinance making this the law of the land there.

5. Let them eat whatever they want (and don't go back for a very long time)

"Let them get what they want, but stress that it's a special occasion," advises Sandra Gordon, author of the Consumer Reports Best Baby Products book and a mommy blogger.

She suggests saying something like this: "We'll go to Burger King today because it's your birthday lunch, but we're not coming back for a very long time."

Healthier fast food options for you

While you're at a fast food restaurant with your kids -- or if you're there without them -- here are some healthy choices for you, according to Consumer Reports on Health and websites for these restaurants. Again, a point of reference: How many calories you're supposed to eat each day varies widely, but for many people it's about 2,200 calories. The USDA has a complete list of recommended daily caloric intakes based on your age, gender, and activity . If you want to know if you're overweight, see this BMI calculator.

1. Arby's Melt

Add on a chopped side salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and you've got a 570-calorie meal.

2. Chick-Fil-A Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich

With barbecue sauce and a large fruit cup, this meal is 425 calories.

3. McDonalds Asian Salad

Get the low-fat balsamic vinaigrette and it's 340 calories.

4. Taco Bell Fresco Bean Burrito

Along with a side of Mexican Rice Fresco, it's 460 calories.

5. Wendy's Jr. Hamburger

It's 320 calories if you add on a side of mandarin oranges.

CNN's Jennifer Bixler, Matt Sloane, and Eden Pontz contributed to this report.

 
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