Once upon a time it was a special occasion thing to eat out with your parents but now it’s part of everyday life and that means restaurant foods have a bigger impact on health and nutrition. Mother of two registered dietitian, Janice Bissex, MS, RD and co-author with Liz Weiss MS RD of The Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeovers says “If eating out is a frequent occurrence, some ground rules should be set.” Bissex recommends limiting soft drink consumption and encouraging water, low fat milk or juice as healthier beverage options.
Kids’ menus are generally a disappointment to dietitians because the standard selection of fried chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and burgers with fries doesn’t encourage eating a variety of foods and can be too high in fat and calories (especially for inactive kids). But, what concerns Bissex the most is what is not offered on kids’ menus. “I’d like to see more whole wheat bread for sandwiches, cut –up fruit, and baby carrots. And instead of pasta in butter I’d prefer to see pasta and marinara sauce with broccoli.”
Kid-Friendly and Health-Friendly
The good news is that family friendly restaurants are listening and working with nutritionists to add healthier menu options for children. The Technomic report recognized a growing presence of fruit and vegetables on kids’ menus. Bob Evan’s Farms offers a low-fat strawberry yogurt with fresh fruit, Jason’s Deli serves organic carrots and apples and even IHOP has a tilapia entrée served with steamed broccoli and lemon!
But, no matter how “healthy” the menu options offered at restaurants; that doesn’t mean kids have to eat it all. One of the most important lessons in life long nutrition is recognizing when you are full. Registered dietitian Jo Anne Lichten, PhD RD, author of Dining Lean says “We all know that restaurant meals are getting bigger than we need. It’s no different for kids’ meals.” Lichten does the meal time math, “So, don’t ever make a kid finish everything on their plate.”
Hey Mom Was Right! 1. Don’t wolf it down – Teach kids to savor flavors and slow down. The faster you eat, the more you are likely to consume; that’s the key to winning a pie-eating contest, not life long healthy eating habits.
2. Don’t spoil your appetite- If a meal includes a soft drink ask that it be served with the meal so children don’t fill up on high calorie sugar water. Ditto on diving into the bowl of tortilla chips or bread basket before the meal arrives.
3. Don’t be afraid to try it – Some kids are more adventurous than others sampling sushi at age six while others are stick to the basics. But, it’s important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety in the diet, the more types of nutrients are provided.
4. Learn to share – Whether its showing kids how to split up a platter of pasta as a first course sampling for the whole family or ordering one slice of cheesecake with four forks; dining out teaches proper portion control when you share.
5. Go out and play! - Kids need to be active to be healthy and burn enough calories to stay fit. Kids who are considered very active (60 minutes or more of physical activity) need only 1600 to 1800 calories per day. Since, most kids eat 4 to 6 times a day (including snacks) a kids meal of 400-500 calories is more than adequate. Note that most children’s restaurant meals range from 500 to over 700 calories.