Parents surveyed 50 of these chains -- places like Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Quiznos -- to find out which ones rock when it comes to feeding families. We left no crumb unturned on the kids' menu, examining the calories, fat, and sodium of each dish. (We booted out any place that wouldn't fork over the info.) Then we grilled the restaurants about conveniences that are often must-haves for parents, like changing tables in the restrooms, booster seats for toddlers, or stuff for the kids to do if they finish their meal before you do. These chains came out on top for having at least three healthy kids' meals and a family-friendly atmosphere. And did we mention that the food is totally delish?
There's a lot of variety here. Seven of the nine choices on the kids' menu (everything except the nachos and the PB&J) are under 500 calories. Let your children pick from these entrees and decide whether they'd prefer applesauce or a fruit salad for the side. And you should try the new fat-free chipotle-peach dressing on one of the salads; it's delicious.
If you're lucky, you'll live near a McAlister's that hosts kids' nights with balloon animals, raffles, and entertainment. And many locations will give you a kids' discount card. After you get four punches for buying kids' meals, the fifth one is free.
Your kids are bound to get something out of the norm. Unlike many Mexican chains that put American food on the children's menu, the only picks at Taco Del Mar are ethnic faves like beef, chicken, and fish tacos; rice and beans; and bean burritos. "We want children to expand their palate rather than falling back on the typical kiddie food," says Erin Gilbert, marketing director. It seems to be working; 40 percent of kids order the burrito -- at a respectable 480 calories. Even more good news: During July, all kids' meals will be free after 5 p.m. Each comes with a Kids Kit book with earth-friendly projects and riddles. And this summer, teachers and librarians will be in many of the restaurant's outlets for a children's story hour.
For convenience, it's off the charts. Although you order at the counter, your meal will be brought to your table. And while most chains have a sheet for kids to color, Corner Bakery Cafe gives the kiddies crayons and a six-page activity book packed with connect-the-dots, word searches, and other games. "If you want to talk to your spouse or friends after your meal is finished, the kids will have something to occupy them," points out Diana Hovey, senior vice president of marketing.
A few kids' meals are surprisingly fattening (the PB&J, for example, has 780 calories), but you can find some good stuff. The healthiest combo: pasta with marinara sauce, a fruit cup, and an organic reduced-fat milk box. It's about 500 calories -- the right amount for a 4- to 8-year-old. A turkey or ham sandwich is also a good choice, and both come with carrots and fruit.
This restaurant has portions down pat. Instead of serving kids an entire ham or turkey sandwich, it's one of the few restaurants in Parents' survey to give them just half. "It's important for kids to know what an appropriate portion of their food looks like," says president Jerry Couvaras. "For a young child, a gigantic sandwich or a huge bowl of pasta is overwhelming and wasteful." The sandwiches come with potato chips, but you can swap mandarin oranges at no extra cost. The one gripe we had: You'll have to pay extra to get the juice or milk instead of soda.
School and scouting groups can take tours of the place, and even learn how to bake bread. "Some managers invite high-school bands to play in the restaurant and donate a portion of that evening's revenue to the school," says Couvaras. And about 75 percent of locations host regular family nights featuring storytellers, magicians, and face-painters.
You can't top this place for pizza. You can choose from regular, whole-grain, or gluten-free crust. Besides pepperoni and sausage, toppings like artichoke hearts, sweet corn, and avocado are up for grabs. Or instead of building your own pizza, you can go with one of the chain's specialties. "Children like our Berkeley Soy Cheese Veggie pie with veggie burger crumbles, zucchini, roasted peppers, and pesto sauce," says CEO Chris Bright. "It has a gram and a half of saturated fat per slice; some other chain pizzas have up to four times that much."
Another option: Order pizza by the slice -- plain cheese and one other kind that varies daily are sold this way. Surprisingly, even the cheese slice has just 200 calories and three grams of saturated fat. Says Bright: "We use organic tomato sauce and, to keep down the fat, part-skim mozzarella cheese." The fact that some stores have a lounge with games and cartoons makes this place even more worth the dough.
Your little ones will never suspect that the food is so nutritious. All the kids' sandwiches -- grilled cheese, PB&J, deli meat -- are made on fluffy, light-colored bread that's actually whole grain. It's baked daily on-site and you can buy a loaf to bring home. A fun, organic squeezable yogurt, packed with nearly 15 percent of the calcium 4- to 8-year-olds need for the day, comes on the side.
If you have more adventurous eaters, there's an even better way to go: Get the "you pick two" option on the regular menu and split it between kids. You can choose two items from the list, like soup, salads, and chicken sandwiches, for about the same price as two kids' meals. "A lot of kids like the strawberry salad with poppy-seed dressing that we've had for the last few summers," says Scott Davis, chief concept officer. If you want a treat, Panera is also a great place to pick up a brownie or a chocolate-chip cookie because all of the bakery items are trans fat-free.
This menu is healthier than it seems. Indulgent-sounding kids' choices like fettuccine alfredo, meat lasagna, and cheese pizza contain only 260 to 350 calories and two to 14 grams of fat, the right amount for young children. And every dish comes with a side of vitamin C-packed mandarin oranges and a drink, such as low-fat chocolate milk.
On Tuesday nights, there are family promotions at most locations. The kids' meals cost just 99 cents, and staffers lead games and craft projects, such as making noodle necklaces. Unlike many other chains in the Parents survey, Fazoli's doesn't serve alcohol or permit smoking in any of its restaurants.
It's the ultimate in flexibility. Instead of having a separate kids' menu, all of the restaurant's 18 noodle bowls, soups, and salads come in two sizes so children can get the right portion of whatever they want. Since every noodle dish is prepared to order, diners are encouraged to customize -- swapping or adding veggies and a protein like chicken or tofu. Mac 'n' cheese, buttered noodles, and pasta with marinara sauce -- all under 450 calories for the small portion -- will appeal to picky eaters. "A lot of parents ask us to throw a vegetable like broccoli or carrots in these traditional kids' dishes," says Kevin Reddy, CEO. Children with a more sophisticated palate tend to go for the Bangkok Curry (250 calories) or Pad Thai (350 calories).
The food is served on real dishes and kids get colorful, easy-to-use chopsticks. Says Reddy: "When you create this atmosphere, you're more likely to get the kids to try healthy foods they wouldn't touch elsewhere." Makes sense to us.
What a bargain you'll find here! For under $3, your kid can get a nitrate-free hot dog with organic carrots and organic milk or juice to wash it down. In fact, nothing on Jason's new kids' menu (which includes a chicken-breast wrap and bowtie pasta with meatballs) costs more than four dollars or contains trans fat, nitrates, or high-fructose corn syrup. "I'm out to raise a generation of healthy eaters," says owner Rusty Coco. "If I wouldn't feel good about my own grandkids eating it, I'm not putting it on the menu."
Case in point: When the company's dietitian advised Coco to offer snacks, he put three on the children's menu: broccoli and organic carrots with ranch dressing; blue corn chips with salsa; and apples and celery with peanut butter, each 99 cents. Healthy options for adults include half sandwiches, a 39-item salad bar, and reduced-portion baked potatoes.
Let your kid order without worries. Cosi is one of three restaurants in our survey where every kids' entree -- from the pizza to the PB & J -- contains fewer than 425 calories. Even more remarkable, the sodium averages 432 milligrams, about half of what you'll typically find elsewhere. Why are kids' fave foods healthier here than at other chains? "We put our sandwiches and pizza on flatbread baked in the store, which keeps down the calories and sodium," explains Jill Lawrence, director of marketing. "There's a regular and a whole-grain version, and it's hard to tell the two apart."
The sides and drinks have a lot going for them too. Baby carrots, fresh fruit, or potato chips come with the kids' meal; even the chips are a decent pick because they're cooked in unsaturated oil. While soda is an option (as in every restaurant in the survey), a small apple-juice box or a cup of plain whole or skim milk are available too. The milk even comes with a straw that makes it taste like cookies and cream -- and adds only 15 calories. With a "Lighten Up!" section on the adult menu, you'll have plenty of nutritious food to choose from too.