You try to feed your kids a healthy diet. Yet there are days when cooking at home just isn't an option. That favorite fast-food place saves the day.

But it may not be saving calories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fast food has been associated with higher caloric intake and poorer diet quality in children and adolescents. And “with both parents working outside the home and parents racing around to get kids to practices, a lot of families are doing fast food multiple times a week,” said Kelly Devine Rickert, a dietitian with Franciscan Alliance. Match that with a report from the National Institutes of Health: French fry portions jumped from 210 calories to 610 over 20 years.

Uh-oh. What’s a parent to do?

The answer comes from Northwest Indiana health professionals: Take notice and regain control. Fast food is still an option, as long as parents check calorie counts of menu items and control their children’s choices.

“A lot of people don’t have a clue how many calories there are in fast-food kids meals,” Devine Rickert said. “Many assume they’re healthy. But mac and cheese can come in at 460 calories.” That’s a third of the daily recommended calories for an average 4-year-old.

Keeping track of kids’ calories is “absolutely one of the most important things to avoid becoming overweight,” said Dr. Zuhair Alsakaji, a pediatrician with Community Healthcare System.

But what if your child insists on fries as a side? “Fries are OK, but make it once a week and make it a small fry,” Alsakaji said. His suggestions:

  • Try salad instead of fries.
  • Try to avoid fried foods; go for grilled instead.
  • Avoid sweetened pop and other sugary drinks.
  • “Watch those free refills: If it’s pop, that’s a lot of calories.”

Said Devine Rickert: “Just say, ‘Let’s not do fries this time, let’s do fruit or yogurt or a vegetable.'" End of discussion. And if a child really won’t eat enough or only one item, she suggests meeting with a dietitian to make sure the child is getting enough vitamins.

Keeping track

Discovering fast-food calories has become easier. The 2010 Affordable Care Act required all retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calories on their menus and menu boards, a rule that is not yet being enforced. However, many larger chains have already begun meeting that requirement, including McDonald’s, which has made nutritional information available for more than 35 years, said Andrea Abate, a McDonald’s spokeswoman based in Oak Brook, Illinois. Calorie counts have been posted on all U.S. McDonald’s menu boards since 2012.

“We believe it’s important to provide this information when consumers are making decisions,” Abate said. “Our customers also told us that they would like to see more nutritionally balanced choices in McDonald’s kids’ meals and we listened,” by offering a smaller fry, apple slices, fat-free yogurt, Cuties (in season), apple juice, and fat-free or 1 percent chocolate milk.

But overall nutrition is more important than just calories, Devine Rickert said. Alsakaji pointed out the need to know about fat and carbohydrates as well as the calorie count. In a February 2016 report in The New York Times, certified holistic health consultant Jessica Shepard explained that nutritional density and value are critical factors: “If the low-fat strawberry-banana smoothie at 260 calories is made with yogurt and gets its sugar largely from whole fruits, it has a much different nutritional profile than the 240-calorie lemonade.”

Many fast food places have online nutrition calculators for individual menu items.

“Even at fast food places, people should be able to choose wisely,” Alsakaji said.