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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 08/03/2011

For kids, eating out more means eating more

I am writing from what feels like a trench. It’s that dirty. The amenities are that rudimentary. The noise is that sporadic and jolting. In other words, I am at home, which is under renovation.

Like other renovations I’ve lived through and like others I’ve witnessed, this one has been a victim of mission creep. Somehow, the plan to reconstruct my daughters’ bedroom has lead to a lobotomy of the entire back of our house and to the purchase of all new appliances. This includes a refrigerator delivered last Thursday, dead on arrival.

We are now, our family of four, on day six with no refrigeration. Without one, and with a less-than-appetizing home atmosphere, we have been eating out. A lot.

So recent news of the link between childhood obesity and the location of meals popped out at me. According to a new study by University of North Carolina researcher to be published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, American children eat about 255 calories more per day when they eat outside the home.

Given that the study also found that children are eating out more often — consuming more than a third of their daily calories outside the home — those extra calories add up.

In my girls’ case, I am witnessing this firsthand. The calories are not exactly sneaking in. My daughters have eaten more fried chicken tenders, hot dogs and buttery grilled cheeses in the past month than they have had in the previous year. Let’s not even talk about French fries.

Now, I am no Jamie Oliver usually. When I have full use of the kitchen, I rely too often on the microwave and pre-packaged meals. Still, my husband and I try to follow the basic guidelines of offering a variety of choices and at least one fruit or vegetable at each meal. My older daughter, in particular, refuses anything with a hint of nutritional value.

Still, we try at home. Not so when we eat out.

When I am paying for a meal, I’m much less willing to buy something I know my girls will refuse. At the same time, I’m usually so concerned about behavior (see comments on earlier On Parenting posts on children and restaurants here and here to find out why I might be concerned my children are bothering others) that I lose focus on the meal. I allow my daughter to order the hot dog because it’ll be eaten without a fuss. Too often I get distracted and forget to ask that the fries be substituted. (Why on earth are fries added automatically to every order?)

I take full responsibility for this dietary nose-dive. I will try to atone once that replacement refrigerator arrives.

It has been, however, very easy to slide into terrible habits. Even with the welcome news that McDonald’s has made their kids’ meals slightly more healthy, restaurant options tend to be far worse than at-home options. And now, what used to be overlooked as a once-in-a-while-treat (or a let’s-get-through-this-renovation-nightmare), is becoming a normal part of a child’s diet.

How often does your family eat out? Do you have better strategies for keeping family restaurant meals healthy?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 08/03/2011

 
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