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The Real Deal on Kids' Meals

You’ve known for most of your life that what you nosh for dinner each night matters, but researchers say where you nosh matters, too. Let’s face it: When given the choice between a big burger with all the fixings and a bed of greens, one makes our stomachs rumble a whole lot louder. Especially kids’ tummies.

According to a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, kids who eat out are consuming up to 300 more calories each day, 13 percent more sugar, 22 percent more total fat, 25 percent more saturated fat and 17 percent more salt than what’s recommended. Between 26 and 42 percent of the study’s child participants had eaten a "quick meal out" on the day they recorded their eating habits—which is leading scientists to believe that fast-food restaurants might be the culprits.

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This might not seem like breaking news, but the reality of all the greasy, fried restaurant food on health is often ignored and not acted upon. Eating out puts children at significant risk for conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and they’re heading in that drive-through multiple times a week.

There are a lot of challenges that come with avoiding fast-food restaurants. When you’re driving home with the kids after school or practice, most moms know it’s easiest to grab a burger and fries from the nearest drive-thru. But is that the best choice?

Nutrition physician specialist Dr. Melina Jampolis, co-author of The Calendar Diet, says when you have to eat out, keep one rule in mind: simplicity. “The bottom line is, simple is better,” she says.

If you're looking for healthy fast-food, Taco Bell may be your best bet. “Lots of dishes contain more veggies here, and the fresco menu is 25 percent reduced fat,” says Jampolis. “The bean burrito is a simple, good choice. The hard taco is slightly higher in fat, but it's whole grain since it’s made with corn." As far as which kind of meat to get in your taco? Jampolis says there isn't too much difference between the chicken and the beef, but just watch the added cheese. As far as sides, salsa contains vegetables, and black beans and rice are a good option, so stick with those.

If you can't go south of the border, Jampolis says you can never go wrong with a greener choice. “Obviously, salad with grilled chicken is best in most cases, except with tons of dressings and toppings,” says Jampolis. “But it’s hard to balance what kids will honestly eat with what is healthiest.”

If your kids won't go near a salad bar, you can make their favorite option a healthy one. “A burger can be healthy, as long as you don't load it up with cheese, bacon or mayo,” Jampolis says. “Grilled chicken is always the healthiest—again, as long as you don't add high fat toppings. Fried and crispy chicken and fish sandwiches are no-nos, and apple slices are of course way better than fries.” If you're looking for something outside the box, don’t forget a cold-weather favorite, chili, which is often one of the healthiest options. "Beans are overlooked as a health food,” says Jampolis.

MORE: How to Make Your Kids' Food More Healthy

Drinks anywhere can be tricky, since they’re likely packed with dyes and calories your kids don’t need. So consider all the options. “If the juice is small, it is better than soda,” says Jampolis. “It’s still loaded with sugar, but at least it has nutrients. Fat-free milk is better still, and water is probably best for most kids, especially if they are overweight.”

While eating out is sometimes unavoidable, Jampolis stresses just how important making a home-cooked meal can be.

“More fast-food has been linked to obesity in kids, so take the extra few minutes whenever you can to make quick and healthier options at home,” says Jampolis. Think about using a crock-pot to make meals and keep them warm, and take a little time for meal planning on the weekends or at night for your busiest days each week.

We want to know! What do you order your kids from fast-food restaurants?

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