Feel like going out to eat tonight? Parents polled more than 50 of the largest full-service or buffet-style restaurant chains to see which cater best to families and to find out what they're feeding the kids.
#10 Claim Jumper
The only chain on the ten-best list to have separate menu options for younger and older kids, Claim Jumper's choices are extensive -- 15 entrees and 10 sides. While you'll find some typical fare, the build-your-own pizza, frozen grapes, bean-and-cheese burrito, and barbecued chicken breast are more fun options. And there's even a healthy dessert for kids: frozen chocolate-banana bites. Children 2 and under get a free plate with turkey, cheese, applesauce, and mandarin orange slices since the chain thinks that even the smaller kids' meal is too big for toddlers. Other thoughtful features: changing tables in the women's and men's restrooms and a chainwide no-smoking policy. 45 restaurants in eight states. Call-ahead seating and reservations accepted at all locations.
There's no denying that the children's menu at this chain is far out: While your kids are waiting for their star-shaped chicken nuggets, anti-gravity grapes, astronaut applesauce, or any of the other space-themed fare to arrive, they get to sip their milk or juice from a rocket-shaped cup. On the serious side, the chain puts complete nutrition and allergy info for all its dishes, including its healthy Fit Fare items, online. Trans fat is out of most dishes -- and the chain should be completely free of this unhealthy fat by this fall. 1,546 restaurants in 49 states. Call-ahead seating accepted at some locations.
#8 P.F. Chang's China Bistro
The food at this chain is meant to be served family-style -- where everyone eats a little of this and a little of that -- so there isn't a separate menu for children. But there are plenty of kids' favorites, including the ginger chicken with broccoli, chow mein, and crab wontons. If you have a picky eater, chefs will toss noodles in butter and serve steamed veggies on the side with dip. Kids get special easier-to-use chopsticks and a toy to play with while they're waiting at the table. If you want nutrition or allergy information, it's all very clear on the company's Web site. 178 restaurants in 39 states. Call-ahead seating and reservations accepted at all locations.
#7 The Old Spaghetti Factory
An antique-filled restaurant is certainly not the first place you'd think to take the kids, but The Old Spaghetti Factory has a cool family vibe. If you're lucky, your family will snag a seat inside the trolley car each location has. If not, there are fun "bed booths" -- seating built from old headboards. The eclectic decor is a contrast to the simple kids' menu: There are six pasta choices, each served in a trolley-themed bowl. They come with a tossed salad or applesauce, a drink, and ice cream or a juice bar for just $5. Plus, the chain gives away a lot of kids' meals in connection with its Rewards for Reading certificates, distributed through schools and libraries. 37 restaurants in 15 states. Call-ahead seating at all locations.
#6 Red Robin
With a wacky mascot that makes special appearances, a children's birthday club, and balloons galore, Red Robin has long been a fun place to take the family. Now, thanks to a new kids' menu that started rolling out in February and should be chainwide this month, it can be a healthy one too. Grilled chicken with Parmesan noodles, veggie burgers, and five side choices, including cantaloupe wedges, carrots with dip, and apple slices, are new to the menu. For families with food allergies, Red Robin offers a detailed yet easy-to-understand ingredient guide. It also sponsors a recipe contest every year for 6- to 12-year-olds. Last year's winning recipes are available in a cookbook sold online; all proceeds go to charity. 393 restaurants in 40 states.
#5 Chili's Grill & Bar
The kids' menu keeps growing: The chain recently added three more sides -- corn, mandarin oranges, and pineapple -- to the seven options it already had. Entrees range from grilled chicken to pasta to pizza. While many restaurant chains support charities, Chili's is exceptional, raising more than $8 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital last year. Its next nationwide fund-raiser takes place on September 29; all profits from dining on that day are donated to St. Jude's. 1,439 restaurants in 50 states. Call-ahead seating available in all locations and reservations at most.
#4 Uno Chicago Grill
Forget everything you think you know about this pizza restaurant. If you haven't been there in a year or two, you're in for a pleasant surprise: It now offers lighter, flatbread pizzas and a kids' menu that features grilled chicken, whole-grain penne, and health-minded sides like broccoli, apples, and mandarin oranges. Kids can even put on an apron and make their own pie using flatbread dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings, which are brought to your table. The pizza is then baked and returned with the rest of the family's order. To add to the fun, some locations offer character nights and many give an apple to kids on their way out. 200 restaurants in 29 states. Call-ahead seating available at some locations.
#3 Mimi's Cafe
This chain's got just the thing to settle down hungry, antsy kids -- a free appetizer plate filled with Cheerios, oranges, and crackers. Kids' menu options include a turkey dinner, soup and salad, and spaghetti; all come with a choice of sides such as fresh veggies, fruit, mashed potatoes, and applesauce. Mimi's also has one of the widest range of beverages of any restaurant in the survey; for instance, whole, reduced-fat, and fat-free milk are available in both plain and chocolate. And it's a safe bet that the powers that be at this place are parents: Bibs and hand wipes are given to all families with young kids, and there are changing tables in all restrooms. 132 restaurants in 22 states. Call-ahead seating available at all locations and reservations accepted in some.
#2 Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes
Buffets are a godsend when your kids won't sit still for long. This chain, known as Souplantation in Southern California and Sweet Tomatoes in the rest of the country, is particularly wonderful because it's cheap (less than $10 for adults and $5 for kids 3 and over), fast, and focused on healthy food. It features a pasta station, eight soups, a 55-foot salad bar with plenty of fruits and vegetables, a bakery section with focaccia pizza and low-fat muffins, and a soft-serve "fro yo" machine. But it's also a great place for picky eaters to try new foods -- like banana squash -- because they can take just a little from the buffet. 109 restaurants in 15 states. Call-ahead seating available at some locations.
#1 Legal Sea Foods
The greatest thing about Legal's kids' menu: Even if your child insists on ordering the chicken fingers or grilled cheese, they arrive with grapes and corn on the cob. But don't be surprised if your little one opts for something more adventurous. At most locations, wood-grilled fish is more popular than any of the 10 other kids' entrees, including the whimsical fish-shaped cheese ravioli. "Some children want what their parents are having, and it makes them feel grown up," says Legal's CEO, Roger Berkowitz, who regularly powwows with the nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The Harvard connection prompted the chain to eliminate trans fat five years ago, test all tuna and swordfish for mercury, cook non-seafood items on a separate grill to accommodate kids with shellfish allergies, and, lately, cut back on sodium. Chefs don't salt the kids' fries and came up with a low-sodium raspberry vinaigrette for salads. 32 restaurants in nine states. Reservations and call-ahead seating accepted at all locations.
Hungry for More? The Runners Up
These other restaurant chains -- runners-up in our ranking -- are also worth a visit.
11. Cici's Pizza This buffet restaurant offers great value (kids eat for $3 or less, babies and toddlers for free) and good-quality food, including 16 kinds of pizza and a salad bar.
12. Texas Roadhouse At some locations, kids get their meal -- with sides like green beans -- served in a cowboy hat.
13. Ted's Montana Grill All menu items, including the children's salmon, meat loaf, and "mac 'n' cheez" are made from scratch using local ingredients when possible.
14. Joe's Crab Shack The snow-crab legs and crab-shaped Rice Krispies Treat are fun, but the draw is the playground.
15. California Pizza Kitchen Yep, kids love the pizza. But mac 'n' cheese with edamame, pasta tossed in olive oil, and a big salad topped with Goldfish crackers are also yummy.
16. Chevy's Fresh Mex Bean-and-cheese burritos, tacos, and flautas will have your niños saying olé.
17. Olive Garden Kids can have their mac 'n' cheese or spaghetti and tomato sauce made with whole wheat linguine.
18. IHOP Five kids' items -- like the tilapia and Create-A-Face pancake with fruit -- are noted as healthy choices.
19. Roy's A three-course kids' menu has some adventurous choices like veggie crudites, salmon, and shrimp tempura.
20. Ruby's Diner Although its kids' menu is in the shape of a classic car that kids can pop together, choices like organic milk, turkey burgers, and grilled chicken -- are totally mod.
21. Bertucci's At most locations, kids get pizza dough to play with while they're waiting for their own pie to come.
22. Sonny's Real Pit BAR-B-Q Pulled pork, ribs, and smoked turkey are among the selections for kids.
23. Applebee's Although the kids' entrees are typical, the chain offers broccoli, celery with dip, or applesauce as a side.
24. Romano's Macaroni Grill Children can color on the paper table cover before their meal arrives.
25. Ruby Tuesday Pasta with marinara sauce and grilled chicken with broccoli are great choices from the kids' menu.
Trans Fat-Free Restaurants
Which restaurant chains have stopped using this most unhealthy type of fat? Check out our exclusive guide.
- California Pizza Kitchen
- The Cheesecake Factory
- Chevy's Fresh Mex
- Chili's Bar & Grill
- Cici's Pizza
- Legal Sea Foods
- Olive Garden
- P.F. Chang's China Bistro
- Red Robin
- Sonny's Real Pit BAR-B-Q
- Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes
- Texas Roadhouse
- Ted's Montana Grill
- Uno Chicago Grill
- Buca di Beppo
- Claim Jumper
- Mimi's Cafe
- Old Spaghetti Factory
- Ruby's Diner
- Ruby Tuesday
- Big Boy
- Bob Evans
- Hard Rock Cafe
- Joe's Crab Shack
- Maggiano's Little Italy
- McCormick & Schmick's
- On The Border
- Red Lobster
- Romano's Macaroni Grill
- Black Angus Steakhouse
- Ninety Nine Restaurant
- Max & Erma's
- Outback Steakhouse
Healthy Kids' Menus
What's on the kid's menu? In three words: more than ever. After reviewing the choices for children from 40 restaurant chains, Parents found that while soda, fries, and nuggets are staples, you're likely to find some nutritious options too.
The following popular restaurant chains blew off the Parents survey:
- Bonefish Grill
- Cracker Barrel
- Lone Star Steakhouse
- Old Country Buffet
- T.G.I. Friday's
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.