Apple slices with fast food? Subway makes that work in its kids meals. (Bigstock)

Kids’ menus at most chain restaurants have too many calories, too much salt or fat, and often not a hint of vegetables or fruit, according to a new study.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which studies food and health, looked at almost 3,500 meal combinations from 34 restaurants. They failed to meet nutritional standards 97 percent of the time.

That was a small improvement over 2008, when such meals failed to meet standards 99 percent of the time.

Every children’s meal offered at popular chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, McDonald’s and Popeyes fell short of standards adopted by the center from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional recommendations.

“Most chains seem stuck in a time warp, serving up the same old meals based on chicken nuggets, burgers, macaroni and cheese, fries and soda,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI nutrition policy director. “It’s like the restaurant industry didn’t get the memo that there’s a childhood obesity crisis.”

Among the meals singled out was Applebee’s grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, fries and 2 percent chocolate milk, which has 1,210 calories, 62 grams of fat and 2,340 milligrams of salt. The combo meal had nearly three times as many calories as what CSPI suggests for 4- to 8-year-olds.

At Ruby Tuesday, the macaroni and cheese, white cheddar mashed potatoes and fruit punch combo has 870 calories, 46 grams of fat and 1,700 milligrams of salt, Wootan said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that children eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt each day to avoid high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke and other health problems.

Eating high-calorie meals also can cause kids to become overweight. Being overweight as a child leaves a person vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes and a shortened life span. About one-third of American children are considered overweight, according to USDA.

Subway restaurants’ Fresh Fit for Kids meal combos are exceptions to the typical salty, fatty choices, the study said.

Subway serves apple slices with its kid-size sandwiches and offers low-fat milk or bottled water instead of soda. All eight of its children’s meals met CSPI’s nutritional guidelines.

A few other restaurants have begun to offer side dishes other than french fries. Every child’s meal at LongHorn Steakhouse comes with fruit or a vegetable.

“More chains are adding fruit, like apple slices, to their menus, but practically every chain could be adding more vegetable and whole-grain options,” said Ameena Batada, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Labeling can also be helpful. The report mentioned two studies that indicated customers who are given menus that show how many calories are in each meal sometimes make more healthful choices.

— Reuters