When Parents Think 'Healthy Fast Food,' Juice and Frozen Yogurt Win

Parents’ quest to find healthier places to dine with their kids has led big restaurant chains to add fresh, natural, green, and low-calorie options. McDonald’s made over its Happy Meals with fruit and yogurt options earlier this year. Subway started offering veggie-themed kids’ meals in 2007.

Yet parents on the receiving end of these efforts haven’t necessarily been won over. A survey in which nearly 6,500 diners with children were asked to rate fast-food restaurants as best for “availability of healthy options” didn’t result in strong showings for McDonald’s and Subway. The top-ranked chains instead feature juice, frozen yogurt, and Mexican fare.

While big burger chains didn’t make the cut, smaller brands that focus on healthfulness get greater credit for it, says Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano. “Overall, healthier foods are priced higher, and this correlates to brand perception,” he adds. Lower-priced restaurants are simply perceived to have lower quality.

The difference counts most with female customers, who are more concerned about healthy menu items at fast food restaurants: Some 74 percent considered it important vs. 58 percent of men. “Operators who fail to provide these choices run the risk of alienating women and moms,” according to Technomic’s report. The survey didn’t ask about healthy kids’ meals in particular.
 
Here are the top 10 restaurant chains perceived to have the best healthy options, along with some examples of what you might find from the healthier offerings—not that everything on these menus is necessarily very healthful.
 

Courtesy Jamba Juice

1. Jamba Juice: Jamba Kids meals feature fruit and veggie smoothies and such food items as pizza and a pretzel.

Courtesy Pinkberry

2. Pinkberry: At least it’s fro-yo, not ice cream. And it’s only 100 calories per serving (PDF), with toppings that include fresh berries.

Courtesy Jason’s Deli

3. Jason’s Deli: The chain serves 17 options under 530 calories for kids, although that includes items such as hot dogs, pizza, and mac and cheese. Jason’s bans artificial trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

Courtesy Panera Bread

4. Panera Bread: The fast-casual chain offers kid-sized pasta, sandwiches, and yogurt.

Courtesy Baja Fresh Mexican Grill

5. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill: The Mexican grill serves a variety of tacos, salads, and burritos that are under 500 calories.

Courtesy Potbelly

6. Potbelly : The sandwich shop offers “skinny” sandwiches that are under 400 calories and also serves fruit smoothies.

Courtesy McAlister’s Deli

7. McAlister’s Deli: The 325-restaurant fast-casual chain serves a garden salad for kids. The chain also has a “Lite” menu (PDF) with two items that add up to less than 600 calories.

Courtesy El Pollo Loco

8. El Pollo Loco: The chicken chain has such options for kids as skinless chicken breast with a side of vegetables.

Courtesy Rubio’s

9. Rubio’s: The mix of healthy options for kids meals at the 190-restaurant chain includes applesauce, beans, rice, and milk. There are also churros, chips, and kids’ drinks.

Courtesy Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches

10. Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches: This fast-growing chain serves “slim” sandwiches that offer just over 200 calories.

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