fastfoodFast food has a reputation as the enemy of health, especially for kids. Without much effort, you can find information linking children’s fast food consumption to childhood obesity, long-term health problems like diabetes, asthma, or arthritis, and even a shortened life span. But how bad is it, really?

While there’s no doubt fast food offers up plenty of greasy, fat-laden empty calories, most of the big chains are offering healthy alternatives. And even the regular menu items won’t irrevocably harm your child if they’re consumed as occasional treats instead of the default for dinner.

What is “occasionally”? Experts (dis)agree

Of course, some experts recommend that children should never, ever eat fast food, and that you should prepare healthy, organic meals with fresh ingredients and balanced nutrition three times a day, every day, forever. These experts probably aren’t parents, and don’t understand things like school field trips and friends who have birthday parties at McDonalds—or the idea that life is too short for you to spend the next 18 years preparing an endless parade of home-cooked meals from scratch.

But with regard to how occasionally fast food is okay, there’s a wide range of opinions out there. Some experts say that once a month, or a few times a year (such as only at the aforementioned birthday parties or school field trips), is sufficient. Others recommend no more than once a week.

So the real answer is what you’re comfortable with as a parent. If your child’s diet is healthy most of the time, and he or she is physically active, then one fast food meal or snack per week is fine. If your child struggles with weight or health issues, the right occasion may be less often.

Choosing the lesser evil

When it comes to fast food, especially for younger kids, it’s more about the experience than the menu. Most fast food chains are kid-friendly, fun places, and the real treat is going there. So you can make it less risky by choosing healthier alternatives.

Look for healthy substitutions on the menus, such as fruit instead of fries with a kids’ meal, or salads for older kids. Choose low-fat milk or fruit juice instead of soda to drink. And if your child needs to cut down on their fat intake, pick grilled chicken over fried and get sandwiches without mayo or cheese.

Healthy choices for your family can include the occasional fast food foray. With an overall balanced diet and limits for your fast food nights, both you and your kids can enjoy the benefits.

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