What’s In Our Kid’s Fast Food Meals?

On our busiest of days, it may seem like a feat of unnatural human strength to get a healthy, homemade meal on the table for our families. With so many convenient (and cheap!) options to chose from, many moms are relying on fast food as a quick and easy way to fill our children’s bellies with sustenance. In fact, 84% of kids eat fast food at least once a week.

But what are we actually filling those little bellies with?

We are bombarded with commercials on TV showcasing the healthier and more balanced options that restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are featuring. But despite the over-use of buzzwords like “all-natural,” “new and improved” and “healthier options,” are these the things our kids are choosing?

And are those “healthier options” as healthy as we think?

Most Common Offenders

Most popular options for pre-schoolers include french fries, soda, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and hamburgers. While there are alternatives for both fries and sodas on many menus, when researchers from a Yale University study went into 250 fast-food restaurants across the country, they found that “over 80% of the time, fries were served with kids’ meals and over half of the time soft drinks were served over healthier options.”

Mass produced, processed and filled with preservatives, artificial flavorings, colorings and other additives, most of these options also present an awfully long list of ingredients.

At McDonald’s, where the Chicken McNuggets are “new and improved” and a common choice for kids, the meat alone contains over seven ingredients. Add another 20 for the breading, including scary additives and chemical preservatives that are also used in silly putty, and you have a very unnatural chicken product that millions of kids consume every single day.

If you’re feeling queasy already, the tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), also found in the McNugget, is a chemical preservative and a form of butane, or, in other words, lighter fluid. Shilo Urban, in an article titled “What’s in Fast Food Chicken? (Hint: It’s NOT Chicken)”, stated that one gram of this can cause a whole host of negative symptoms, while just five grams can kill you.

Author of Eat This, Not That!, David Zinczenko, informs us that McDonald’s isn’t even the guiltiest culprit of multi-ingredient “chicken” nuggets. Wendy’s nuggets have over 30 ingredients while Burger King chicken fries top out at 35.

And while the burgers at McDonald’s appear to be made with 100% ground beef, the buns and processed cheese add a whole host of healthy eating don’ts such as high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.

Wendy’s Frosty, a restaurant staple and a common treat for kids at the fast food chain, has a whopping 14 ingredients in it, despite the common association with a traditional milkshake, which consist of milk and ice cream.

Deli Sandwiches Triumph

Fortunately for us busy moms, while they aren’t plentiful, there are healthier fast food options out there.

According to the Yale Study, the healthiest options are dominated by Subway and Burger King and include menu items such as a veggie delite sandwich, roast beef sandwich, grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese. A junior burger from Sonic with apple slices and unsweet tea even made the list and comes in at 350-calories.

These meals all come with a side of fruit and are absent of sugary soft drinks. They don’t blow our kid’s daily calorie allotments and won’t fill their bodies with excess sodium and saturated fat.

Taking Action

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a recovering Chicken NcNugget addict. Thinking I was making the healthier selection in a sea of greasy burgers and high-calorie salad options, I was nauseous as I read the gory details. Having previously ignored the onslaught of fast food related info, raising a child has forced me to re-examine the nutritional facts and what I have fed him on my most hectic afternoons.

Moving forward, I will certainly be choosing more wisely.

How has this information forced you to re-examine the fast food decisions you have made? What are some of your healthier alternatives for a busy afternoon or evening?

About Rebecca Reed

Rebecca is a former project manager in the marketing industry turned project manager for her steadily growing family. She has one adventurous toddler and another on the way. She can be found blogging her way through crazy adventures in parenting, motherhood and her passion for pop-culture and wine on unexpecting!


  1. Our Burger Kings don’t even offer the macaroni and cheese anymore. Which was a huge disappointment for my son since that was the only fast food restaurant he would eat in. He didn’t like chicken nuggets or hamburgers which left us limited options.

    But ummm yeah I don’t think chicken needs more than chicken in it. The kids might be disappointed that we won’t be doing fast food for a long time to come now. So thanks for that, lol. My wallet actually does thank you though.

  2. Really informative and scary post Rebecca. Since I’ve had my babies I find myself in the drive through more than ever because it is the only place I can grab a meal quickly for myself without dragging the boys inside somewhere with me. This is going to make me plan ahead a little better for my own nutrition.

  3. Rebecca Reed says:

    I know when we are traveling or have family/friends in town we are more likely to swing through a drive-thru or stop for fast food. I usually do a good job of popping some steamer veggies in the microwave before we go so my 16-month old son has them to eat, but have never hesitated to order him some chicken nuggets to go with the veggies and fruit I pack. Never again.

    It’s disappointing to me that restaurants can get away with this. That they can advertise this “new and improved” recipe and know that they are still making it with all this nasty crap. I know I was always one who LOVED some Chicken McNuggets, and after researching for this article, not only will I never let my child eat them again, but I won’t eat them again, either.

    I apologize for upsetting your kids. Hopefully they’ll thank you (and me!) one day :)

  4. Wow – I’ll be thinking twice, before we go do the “drive through” meal again!
    Excellent article. I’m going to have to do some research of my own. I used to be a Subway regular, but I’m boycotting them for now. I wonder if Quizno’s has some good alternatives? What about the Chili at Wendys? Oh geesh – now I’ve made myself hungry:-(

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