When it's time to order your child's meal off the kids' menu, do you go for the chicken fingers and fries? Or the grilled chicken sandwich on whole wheat bread and vegetables?
A study found healthier kids' meals generally don't cost more than the less healthy meal options at restaurants.
However, there are generally fewer choices for healthy foods on kids' menus. These researchers found the average price of the more healthful meals was $5.38 while the less healthy meals averaged $5.27.
The study, led by Rebecca A. Krukowski, PhD, of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, looked at the prices on children's menus at 75 full-service restaurant chains.
The researchers compared the prices of the healthier and the less healthy options on the menus to see if the healthier food tended to be more expensive.
The restaurants were selected from the 200 restaurants pulling in the most money in 2009. They were all full-service, sit-down restaurants, not fast food restaurants.
The researchers relied primarily on menus from the Little Rock, Arkansas area where they were based to avoid geographical differences in prices.
"More healthful" food included those that were described as "grilled," "baked" or "broiled" (except grilled cheese).
Foods described as "fried," foods with red meat (unless low fat or low calorie) and foods using a lot of cheese, butter or cream sauce were regarded as not healthful.
Sandwiches were only rated as healthful if they were made with whole wheat and contained lower-calorie and/or lower-fat condiments.
At 14 of the restaurants, all kids' meals were the same price. Among the 75 restaurants, 17 of them (23 percent) had only less healthy options available, which averaged $4.89, while the other 58 of them (77 percent) had at least one healthy option on the menu.
There were generally many more less healthy options than healthy options on the menus, the researchers found.
An average of eight items were less healthful on the menus while the healthy options were, on average, one to two of the total options.
"In contrast to research demonstrating that more healthful foods tend to be more expensive in grocery stores, more healthful entrées on children’s menus in restaurants were not more expensive than less healthful entrées," the researchers wrote.
Deborah Gordon, MD, a dailyRx expert specializing in nutrition, said she had a mixed response to this study.
"It's great that no price barrier steers consumers away from 'more healthful' meals, but I take issue with the authors' health standards," Dr. Gordon said. "While I agree that salads and vegetables are valuable, it is not true that red meat, butter, and cream are necessarily bad. Properly raised and prepared, they are helpful components of a balanced diet."
In fact, Dr. Gordon suggested that including a broader range of these foods in diets may help people eat healthier overall.
"I believe that if we understood the research absolving red meat and healthy animal fats, we might get more people to eat a salad if they could have it with beef strips rather than dried out chicken breast strips," she said.
The study was published June 6 in the CDC's Preventing Chronic Disease. No external funding was used for the study, and the authors declared no conflicts of interest.