After analyzing kids' items offered by 13 of the nation's 25 largest restaurant chains, the Center for Science in the Public Interest concluded that 93 percent of the meals provide too many calories.
Nutrition guidelines suggest that a moderately active child age 4 to 8 should get no more than 1,290 calories a day (430 calories per meal). Every single kid's option exceeded that at five chains. "These meals are really calorie time bombs," said Dr. Harold Goldstein, head of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
The best ranking went to Subway, with 12 children's meal combinations below 430 calories – and six above.
Adults should also make sure kids get plenty of fruit, vegetables and fiber, while staying away from too much salt or fat, Goldstein said.
Kids consume almost twice the calories in a restaurant meal than in one served at home. But it's tough for a parent to be vigilant, the study said. Few might realize, for example, that Chili's Chicken Crispers, at 590 calories, are a much heftier choice than the Rib Basket at 370 calories.
The groups urged restaurants to make sure kids meals "default" to the most nutritious alternatives, such as nonfat milk instead of a soda, and fruit or low-fat vegetables instead of fries.
Disney theme parks have found that more than 70 percent of parents will stay with healthy default options, the study said.
The California Restaurant Association has told lawmakers that it would be impractical to insist on having calorie counts on menus.