The CSPI describes itself as a Washington-based nonprofit health advocacy group focusing on nutrition and food safety. Of the kids meals it analyzed, 86% contained more than 430 calories, and 50% have more than 600 calories, the report says. About two-thirds -- 66% -- exceeded the sodium standard.
The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that children ages 4 to 10 consume between 400 and 670 calories at each meal, depending on their age, gender and physical activity levels.
While some chains offer non-soda and fruit options, "soft drinks and fried potatoes are still more common options on children's menus,"' according to the report. The CSPI recommendations include offering more fruit and vegetable options and making those the default side dishes with every children's meal.
However, the news isn't all bad, according to the report. All eight of Subway's Fresh Fit for Kids meal combinations met CSPI's nutrition criteria.
The chain also was lauded for not offering sugary drinks as an option with kids meals, instead including low-fat milk or bottled water and apple slices with its child-size subs. However the group recommended that Subway increase the whole-grain content of its breads and continue to lower sodium.
The best Subway option: a kids roast beef sub, apple slices and 1% milk, which comes in at 395 calories.
Other healthy choices: Burger King's oatmeal, IHOP's whole wheat blueberry pancakes, Outback Steakhouse's kids sirloin with apples and grapes, and Olive Garden's cheese ravioli with broccoli and orange juice.
"Four years ago we found that only 1% of kids meals at the top chain restaurants were healthy, and now 3% are healthy," Wootan said. "So there is a tiny bit of improvement, but it's very, very small."
Sodium rates also have shown improvement, she said. In 2008, only 15% of restaurant meals met the sodium standard; now 35% do.
The bottom line, she said: There's a lot of work to do.
"In order for parents to feed their children healthfully, restaurants need to help," Wootan said. The group encourages participation in the Kids LiveWell program, and says restaurants should offer more whole grains and get rid of soda and other sugary drinks.
"We know they can do it, because some are already doing it," she said.