Eating out with the family allows parents to spend more time enjoying their kids instead of cooking and cleaning up. Unfortunately, parents are left to worry over the nutritional value of their children's food even as they enjoy a meal out.

Researchers from Tufts University led a study that examined the nutritional value of various kids' meal options found at both fast-food and sit-down restaurants. What they found shows family dinners out on the town are healthier than ever, but there's still room for improvement. Although most items on kids' menus met calorie recommendations, many still contain unhealthy levels of fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

"Improving the availability of healthier kids' meals is a critical step toward increasing children's exposure to healthier foods, but that alone is not enough," said Dr. Sarah Sliwa, lead author and an instructor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, in a statement. "We encourage restaurants to look holistically at the nutritional value of their children's meals, and to market healthier options in ways that emphasize taste and appeal to parents and children alike."

Sliwa and her colleagues gathered data on the top 10 quick-service restaurants and full-service restaurants using the 2014 Nation's Restaurant News Top 100 Report. Each restaurant included in the study had to offer kids’ meals, make nutritional information available to the public, and provide calorie information for all children’s food. Nutritional recommendations included 600 calories or less, 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, and 770 milligrams or less of sodium.

The findings showed that 72 percent of kids’ meals from quick-service restaurants and 63 percent from full-service restaurants met nutritional recommendations for calories. However, less than one-third of quick-service kids’ meals and one-quarter of full-service meals met recommendations for fat, saturated fat, and sodium. Ninety percent of kids’ meals from two of the quick-service restaurants met sodium recommendations, which means other eateries should also be able to do so as well.

"Restaurants should be commended for their progress to date, but no single step will reverse the childhood obesity epidemic and there is still much work to do," said Dr. Christina Economos, senior author of the study as well as vice chair and director of ChildObesity180. "Everyone has a role to play in providing healthier meals for kids.”

While some restaurants waited until December 2016 to list their calorie counts in accordance with the Food and Drug Administration’s new rules, others did so voluntarily ahead of the start date. Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a similar study on voluntary menu labeling. Restaurants that chose to list calorie counts without a push from the FDA sold menu items that were, on average, 140 few calories compared to those that waited until 2016.

“Restaurants can make healthy, appealing options more prevalent and prominent,” Economos added. “Parents can educate and guide their children toward healthy choices, and speak up to demand healthy meals where they don't exist. We need to combine more nutritious children's meal offerings with stronger education to drive both supply and demand to support healthier choices."

Sliwa’s research team said that this new study shows that we can improve upon the nutritional value of children’s meals that are sold at restaurants. Parents should still try to get their kids to eat fresh home-cooked meals as often as possible. A study presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior found that parents who cook the majority of their meals at home raise children who choose healthier foods. Eating healthier as a family starts from the top-down.

Source: Washburn K, Lynskey V, Anzman-Frasca S, Economos C, Sliwa S. Assessing the Availability of Healthier Children's Meals at Leading Quick-Service and Full-Service Restaurants. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2016.