As hard a time as some parents have getting their kids to eat healthy at home, it can seem almost impossible when you take them out to eat.
While this wouldn't necessarily be a problem if your family only eats out as an occasional treat, with the obesity epidemic and fewer people eating at home, it is important to eat healthy wherever your kids are.
Should you just eat at home? Probably, especially when you consider that the average child eats an extra 350 calories per meal when eating out. And kids who eat out at least three or more times a week can get over 40% more calories each day when compared to kids who don't eat out.
The Kids' Menu
Whether taking your kids to a fast food restaurant or a sit down restaurant, the first step to healthier eating is to actually learn about what you have been ordering and what else is available.
For example, popular choices on the Kid's Menu at Chili's Grill & Bar might get your child anywhere from 210 to 890 calories just for the entree and a side dish, even before you add on a drink, dressing (like a side of ranch dressing for the Chicken Crispers - 240 calories), and dessert:
- entrees may have just 140 calories (Pepper Pals Grilled Chicken Platter), 250 calories (Pepper Pals Corn Dog), all the way up to 610 calories (Pepper Pals Country Fried Chicken Crispers)
- side dishes can include healthy options, such as mandarin oranges (70 calories) and steamed broccoli (80 calories), and others with more fat and calories, including Homestyle Fries (260 calories)
- dessert for kids can include a scoop or vanilla ice cream (400 calories) or a shake (640 calories)
So that could equal 1,750 calories if your child orders the Pepper Pals Country Fried Chicken Crispers (includes ranch dressing), Homestyle Fries, and a shake.
Most other restaurants offer a very similar kids' menu, with chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, burgers, and French fries. The scary thing is that these same items are usually offered on the kids' menu, whether you are at a pub style grill and bar, or your favorite Italian, Chinese, or Mexican food restaurant.
You can sometimes find healthier options on the kids' menu, such as:
- Pasta with Marinara Sauce at Carino's Italian Grill
- Grilled Chicken (130 calories) with Sauteed Vegetables (70 calories) and a salad (180 calories) at On the Border
- Chicken Breast & Broccoli at Ruby Tuesdays (276 calories)
Most items on the kids' menu will be high in fat and calories though and are basically fast food.
Eating Healthy When Eating Out
Eating healthy doesn't have to mean that you avoid eating out at restaurants all together. After all, if your kids don't learn to eat healthy, they can just end up eating fast food at home anyway, with a lot of frozen pizza, hot dogs, French fries, and soda.
And eating out, especially on special occasions, can be fun. At these times, eating whatever you want, including a nice big dessert, is usually fine. It is when eating out becomes a routine and not a treat that you have to be much more careful about your choices.
To eat healthier when eating out, it can help to:
- review the nutrition information that is available at most restaurants. These are usually available both at the restaurant and on their website. Unfortunately, some large chain restaurants still don't publish nutrition facts for the meals on their menu, including T.G.I. FRiDAY'S and IHOP, which makes it hard to know if what you are eating is healthy. Be sure to include side dishes, dressings, drinks, and desserts, when you try to figure out the nutrition facts for each kids' meal.
- avoid the kids' menu when eating out. Although the kids' menu is going to include most of the typical kids' favorites, including chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and French fries, these are usually the foods that are high in calories, high in fat and saturated fat, high in sodium, and low in fiber -- which are all of the things you don't want.
- get your child a half order of something healthy on the regular menu (or if available, the heart-healthy or low-fat menu), or even consider simply giving your child some of your own order, keeping in mind that restaurants often serve over-sized portions and that a toddler portion size should equal about a quarter of an adult portion size and a preschooler or younger school-age children (kids from the age of about four to eight years old) should have portions that are about one-third of an adult portion size.
- do the best you can if you must order off of the kids' menu -- choose the healthiest option (usually something that isn't fried), choose healthy side dishes, including vegetables, avoid full fat dressings, and get your child a glass of low-fat milk instead of soda.
- use the opportunity to experiment with your child's diet, such as by trying new foods or things that you don't often have at home -- whole grains, vegetable soups, or fish, etc.
- remember that most soft drinks have calories, sugar, and caffeine, so either get your child low-fat milk, water, diet soda, or a single serving of a soft drink when eating out. Don't let your child get multiple refills, especially if he is drinking a regular soda with caffeine, which is going to add another 200 or 300 calories if your child keeps getting refills, even with a kid-size cup.
- choose a healthy dessert, such as fruit or sherbet, or occasionally share a regular dessert among the whole family.
Most importantly, parents should make healthy choices for themselves and demand more nutritious options at restaurants for kids.
With a little work by parents, the label 'kid friendly' restaurant will mean a lot more than simply offering chicken fingers, a few crayons and a place mat that you can color, and a kid's cup with a lid and straw. Remember that the 'kid friendly' label should focus on healthy kids' meals and not just quick, easy and fun food that is high in fat and calories.
Nielsen. Eating Out in America: A new war wages.
Nielsen. Eating Out in America: A new war wages.