Who hasn't stopped to get something to eat while running errands with the kids or felt like not cooking one night and piled everyone into the car? To find out where your money buys you the most nutritious food and least stressful experience, Parents analyzed the calories, fat, saturated fat, and sodium on both the kids' and adult menus of more than 150 national restaurant chains. For the places with the most healthy options, we also scrutinized the quality of the ingredients such as whether there was organic milk or antibiotic-free chicken. Then we considered conveniences like call-ahead seating, online ordering, crayons to keep kids busy, and high chairs and boosters. Let us show you to the most family-friendly tables in America.
225 locations in 28 states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Southeast
You'll be thrilled with the ingredients. This inexpensive, family-friendly spot serves up organic produce, nitrate-free lunch meat, and whole-grain bread on both its kids' and adult menus. Last year, it became the only restaurant chain in the country to ban high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors in all its food. "With the food dyes out of our mac 'n' cheese, for instance, it's no longer bright orange, but our taste tests show kids prefer the new version," says Pat Herring, director of research and development.
All children's meals at Jason's come with a side of organic carrots, apple slices, or a fruit cup in addition to organic milk or apple juice. "We took soda off the kids' menu to encourage children to opt for healthier drinks," says Herring. Next on tap: reducing sodium across the menu board. The organic PB&J on whole wheat is currently the lowest-sodium kids' option, with 445 milligrams (mg) per serving. The best pick for moms is the 50-plus-item salad bar loaded with organic field greens and four kinds of low-fat dressing, including delish raspberry vinaigrette.
142 locations in 18 states, California to Mid-Atlantic
You can't go wrong with the kids' menu. All of the sandwiches and pizzas range from 150 to 425 calories -- the perfect amount for children 8 and under -- and Cos? is the only restaurant in our survey not to have the sodium content of any kids' dish exceed 700mg. In fact, most choices are between 200 and 400mg, an ideal amount. Entr?es come with a mini fruit cup (usually pineapple, melon, and grapes), a small bag of baby carrots or potato chips, a beverage, and a small cookie.
The restaurant will make any of its sandwiches and pizzas on light-colored whole-grain flatbread, which is virtually impossible for kids to tell apart from the white stuff. The chain recently opened a location in a children's museum and uses it as a testing ground for future kids' menu items. Being sampled there now: sunflower-butter sandwiches and nonfat vanilla frozen yogurt. For you, there are six fabulous choices on the "lighter side" menu, including Signature Salad light (field greens, dried cranberries, pears, pistachios, and gorgonzola cheese in a sherry vinaigrette for 371 calories) and the Hummus and Veggie sandwich (with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and basil for 397 calories).
121 locations in 15 states, mostly in the West and South
The buffet-style restaurant encourages kids to be adventurous eaters. Called Souplantation in Southern California and Sweet Tomatoes elsewhere, the chain features a 55-foot salad bar packed with eight made-from-scratch soups, three hot pastas, and four kinds of salad, each one tossed fresh every 20 minutes. It also has more than 30 ingredients on the bar for creating your own salad, as well as whole-wheat biscuits, low-fat muffins, fresh fruit, and frozen yogurt. "Parents have told us that by coming here they found out their child likes olives or cabbage," says Joan Scharff, vice president of Brand and Menu Strategy. A family of four with two kids ages 5 and under can eat for about $25. Look for kids' nights with balloon artists or clowns.
693 locations in 44 states
It inspires children to eat fish. Four of the seven dishes on the children's menu are seafood. In addition to the new Garlic Grilled Shrimp Skewer, kids can opt for broiled fish of the day, snow crab legs, or popcorn shrimp, all of which come with orange slices or steamed broccoli. When you add in low-fat milk or juice, any seafood kids' meal will be less than 350 calories and 12 grams of fat. "The majority of children order one of our seafood entr?es," says Salli Setta, executive vice president of marketing. "But if your child doesn't want to try fish, we offer grilled chicken on the children's menu."
1,050 locations in 35 states
It feeds kids good stuff. "Our menu gives children the same nutritious choices the adults have, and that fosters the concept at home of not having special kid food and adult food," says Chris Arnold, communications director. For instance, the new kids' menu features a "taco kit," which allows budding chefs to choose three ingredients and take them back to the table to fill their own tortillas. The ingredients are high-quality (all dairy products are hormone-free and most of the meat is antibiotic-free) and lower in sodium than most store-bought Mexican food (the crispy taco shells have only 10mg of sodium apiece). Plus, the chain requires each restaurant to locally source at least 50 percent of one produce item. Another bonus for families of kids with food allergies: The entire restaurant is peanut- and tree-nut free.
256 locations in 18 states
It encourages special ordering. Rather than having a separate kids' menu, the chain offers its noodles, soups, and salads (including 16 dishes under 400 calories) in two sizes, small and regular. You can add or swap more than 14 veggies and lean protein-rich foods, like chicken, organic tofu, and shrimp to any of the dishes. "We have a lot of parents who ask us to add broccoli to their kid's pasta," says Dawn Voss, chief administrative officer. Customization doesn't take long: "We strive to deliver the meal to the table within five minutes of ordering," says Voss. That's barely enough time for kids to start drawing in the mini "noodle doodle" notebook they get at the counter.
451 locations in 40 states
It makes healthy food fun. Red Robin serves its new kids' grilled chicken on Popsicle sticks, tosses a few colorful tortilla strips on top of the kids' side salad, and makes its baby carrots more exciting with ranch dip. "In fact, since we started adding carrots, mandarin oranges, and apple slices last year as side choices, 40 percent of our kids' meals are ordered with something other than fries," says Susan Lintonsmith, senior vice president. Any sandwich (for kids or adults) can be wrapped in lettuce or served on a whole-wheat bun. Free balloons on the way out, kid-size sinks in the restrooms of new locations, and Tuesday-night appearances by "Red," the mascot, are among the other family-friendly perks.
145 locations in 24 states
It's been kid-friendly from Day 1. Since its first location opened outside Disneyland in 1978, Mimi's Cafe has been whipping up mouse-shaped pancakes and giving all kids in high chairs a free nibbler platter with a bib, cereal, and orange slices. Continually adding to the kids' menu, Mimi's has one of the most extensive of our survey, offering more than a dozen choices for an entr?e and seven side picks. The new grilled chicken and veggies (176 calories and 112mg sodium) and the much-loved turkey dinner (302 calories and 533mg sodium) are especially nutritious. "We also have four different kinds of milk -- plain whole, reduced-fat, and nonfat as well as chocolate," notes spokesperson Tina Richardson. Moms have lots of lower-cal, vitamin-packed options too -- like the Asian Chopped Salad and Salmon With Brown Rice and Veggies.
1,421 locations in 40 states
It's up-front with you. Panera posts calorie info for every dish on the menu board next to the price. So you'll know that the kids' smoked turkey, ham, and grilled-cheese sandwiches on whole-grain bread all have roughly 300 calories or that the Asian Sesame Chicken salad for you slides in right at 400 calories. All kids' meals come with organic squeezable yogurt or an apple. To drink, there are organic milk and apple-juice boxes. "My kids like the strawberry poppy-seed salad and cups of watermelon that we sell every spring and summer," says Scott Davis, chief concept officer.
200 locations in 39 states
It's made for sharing. The chain encourages family-style dining; two entr?es can easily feed a family of four. Some lower-cal, lower-sodium picks include Phillip's Better Lemon Chicken, Orange Peel Beef, and Salmon Steamed With Ginger. You can make any chicken or fish entr?e healthier by requesting that it be cooked in vegetable stock rather than oil and soy sauce. But for pickier eaters or to supplement veggies, the chain also has a new kids' menu with chicken with honey or sweet-and-sour sauce on the side, lo mein, and a steamed-vegetable platter. "We wanted to give families flexibility," says Gregg Piazzi, director of culinary operations. "My 4-year-old son is happy sharing the Kung Pao shrimp with me. But my 3-year-old wants her food as plain as can be, so we order her the chicken from the kids' menu." All kids get easy-to-use chopsticks and coloring pages that teach them about Chinese culture.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all menu items, nutrition information, and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each restaurant for up-to-date menus before visiting.