Nine ways to help your children eat more healthfully in restaurants

June 11

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Our kids are growing up with restaurant meals as a frequent part of their food repertoire. That’s truer now than ever before, and it’s not likely to change. According to this 2011 piece on the Huffington Post, in 1900, 2 percent of meals were eaten outside the home. Americans now spend nearly half their food dollars eating away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association. Restaurant meals have gone from special occasions to  how we get the job of eating done.

The digital age will continue to make it even easier  to get restaurant food fast. Meals will be ready in restaurants with the touch of an app.

Research has shown that kids consume more calories, fat and saturated fat -- and fewer servings of fruits, vegetables and milk -- when they eat meals prepared in restaurants. This is not a surprise because they most often frequent cheap fast-food chains, sandwich shops and pizza joints.

While recent headlines have highlighted research that shows the leveling off of obesity rates among low-income preschoolers, obesity rates overall haven't budged. The same study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded: “Overall, there have been no significant changes in obesity prevalence in youth between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012. Obesity prevalence among youth remains at about 17 percent.”

Bottom line: Our kids are in dire need of skills and strategies for eating restaurant food more healthfully. While your kids are young and impressionable, treat family restaurant excursions as teachable moments. Make them opportunities to instill healthful restaurant eating tactics as reflexive behaviors they can practice throughout their lives.

  • Start early. Make these behaviors simply how your family enjoys restaurant meals, from breakfast or lunch on the go to ordering take-out pizza to upscale dining.
  • Be a constant and consistent role model.  Order healthful foods and don’t overeat. If your children see you doing this, they’ll follow in your footsteps.
  • No kids' menus. You know the choices all too well. They’re not healthful. Plus, this tiny list of foods we call “kid friendly” narrows the range of our children's tastes. Make your family motto: “We don’t order from kids’ menus."
  • Healthful options. If you do eat in a fast food restaurant, take advantage of the smaller portions available to children. Many fast food chains now offer a serving of fruit and/or vegetables, and milk has become the beverage of choice. Help children learn to eat smaller portions by encouraging them to choose from among the soups, salads, appetizers and side dishes. Mix and match for a healthful and tasty kid-sized meal. This may be easier in ethnic restaurants.
  • Eat family style. Order fewer entrees than there are people at the table. Seek everyone's opinion, put the entrees in the middle of the table and request empty plates for everyone. Then share the food, as you would at home.
  • Expand their tastes. Expose your children to a wide variety of cuisines and their flavors. Take them to ethnic restaurants -- both the common Mexican, Chinese and Italian, and the more exotic Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian and more.
  • Portion control. In sandwich shops, practice portion control together. When you eat fast food burgers and fries, split a larger order of fries among several of you or the whole family. Order one sandwich and split it. It’s often plenty.
  • Split the sweets. If you're having dessert, divvy it up. Kids love sweets. Teach them how to enjoy and savor small amounts.
  • Quench thirst healthfully. Lay off regular soda, fruit drinks and lemonade, unless they’re sweetened with a low-calorie sweetener. Better yet, choose water or sparkling water served in most sit-down restaurants. Most restaurants also offer low- or fat-free milk. Make milk the number one beverage choice, at home or out. One hundred percent fruit juice is another option, but keep amounts small.

Hope Warshaw, a registered dietitian, writes the Washington Post’s Local Living Nutrition Q&A and is the author of the "Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating" published by American Diabetes Association. She blogs at: hopewarshaw.com/blog. Follow her on Twitter: @hopewarshaw.

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