'Healthy Happy Meal' Doesn't Have To Be An Oxymoron

Are you a terrible parent if you grab a quick bite for the kids at Burger King or McDonald's? San Francisco's "ban" on Happy Meals seems to imply as much.

But on busy nights when there's no time to cook, it can be easy to forget that the nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Can a fast food kids' meal ever be healthy?

If you talk to parents, they’ll tell you there’s a place in the healthy diet for fast food. But like everything, it’s all about moderation.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty if you sometimes have to grab whatever’s available,” says Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian, author, msnbc.com contributor -- and mother of two. “We have crazy weekends -- between the basketball games, the Bar Mitzvahs and other activities – when we’re eating a little less healthful than we normally do.”

The trick, Zied says, is to achieve a balance through the rest of the meals your kids are eating -- and monitor portion sizes. If you’re going to hit a McDonald’s, for example, have your kid get the smallest burger and maybe even a small fries. Pizza is fine, too, if your kid is limited to a slice or two and then fills up with salad or fruit or something equally healthy, says the 42-year-old New York mom.

Zied also sees these forays into fast food as learning experiences for her sons, a chance to teach them how to order healthy meals outside the home.

That makes a lot of sense to Sharon Strohm, manager of clinical nutrition and diabetes education at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg. “They have to be able to deal with real food situations,” she says. “They should learn to deal with restaurant meals where good choices may not be available. And ultimately nothing is off the table. It’s all about the portions.”

With a busy schedule, Strohm says her family ends up eating out a lot. She tries to nudge the kids in the direction of the healthiest choices, and to balance out what they consume at the restaurant with what they eat at home.

“My kids have had Happy Meals,” Strohm says. “As a parent, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.”

And those Happy Meals have recently gotten healthier. Like other fast food restaurants, McDonald’s has tried to come up with a healthier version of its popular kids’ meal. The new Happy Meal includes sliced apples for dessert and a smaller serving of fries, as well as low fat milk or juice instead of a soft drink. The fast food chain just launched a new ad campaign pushing the lighter kids meals. And while a fast food meal is never exactly optimal, it can be a viable, economical option for busy families in a pinch.

"A working mom can get a burger at McDonald's less expensively than the real products to make it at home," Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor, said Thursday morning on TODAY. "McDonald's, if they move to milk and apple slices instead of coke and french fries and a burger to fill a child up, I have no problem with it."

Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Slusser of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA suggests parents choose restaurants that offer healthy, low-cal choices -- such as Subway with its 230-calorie Veggie Delite sandwich or Burger King with its 340-calorie Veggie Burger (without the mayo) or Taco Bell with its 170-calorie Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco.

“You want to practice what you do at home,” Slusser says. “So pick items that are steamed, roasted, or poached instead of deep fried.

If you can’t order smaller portions, try sharing with your child, Slusser suggests. “Or take part of it home with you,” she adds.

Slusser underscores the importance of choosing healthy beverages -- either water or milk -- with the meal.

In the end, Zied says, you need to remember, “Food is not the devil.”

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  • by brittany on Mar 12, 2012 at 08:41 PM
    "Those who think they do not have time for healthy eating, will sooner or later have to make time for illness."
  • by mark Location: ca on Mar 12, 2012 at 12:33 AM
    Search online for "Get Official Samples" if you are looking for famous brands samples. It is the best and I always have success.
  • by DS1 on Mar 11, 2012 at 12:15 PM
    No matter what, the south will still lead the world in obesity.
  • by MD on Mar 11, 2012 at 10:28 AM
    America likes convenience thats why you can buy everything in a nice little bundle. We need to get back to the way things used to be. Spend some time growing/raising your food. Don't pay someone else to give you subpar hormone and herbicide filled food. That stuff is the reason why cancer, heart failure, diabetes, and the other endless list of medical problems are occurring at such high rates these days. You people are literally putting POSION into your bodies.
  • by p on Mar 11, 2012 at 08:50 AM
    Mcdonalds said they stopped putting the pink slime in their meat but did they really? If so, I wonder what other nasty stuff they replaced it with.
  • by rapper Location: snow hill on Mar 11, 2012 at 08:24 AM
    Watch for the "Pink Slime " ! Why not "Super Size " it ? Wash it all down with more sugar water at $1 per cup. Are you "Lovin' it " yet ? The franchise owner is "Lovin it" but loves your money more.
  • by Paul Darren on Mar 11, 2012 at 08:08 AM
    When my grandmother grew up, it was about making entire meals all day long. When my mother grew up, it was about making sandwiches for supper. For me while growing up, everything's taking all of our time that we're lucky if we can make a sandwich at home.
  • by anon Location: wallace on Mar 11, 2012 at 07:51 AM
    san francisco. the first utopia for the commie socialist and the strays!!!!
  • by Anonymous on Mar 11, 2012 at 07:38 AM
    Maybe Michelle Obama will move her family there next January when they are told it is time for them to move out of the White House.
  • by Gregory on Mar 11, 2012 at 07:35 AM
    The most important part of this story is "San Franciso" - the mecca of fruits & nuts. No further explanation required
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