Although kids’ meals in fast-food chains have gotten better in quality, restaurants’ kids’ meals come in big portions, with high amounts of fat and sodium. (ISTOCKPHOTO)

Q: When eating out, how can we gently nudge our children away from “kids’ meals” so they will eat healthier and expand their food horizons?

A: This is a question that, while pertinent year-round, is particularly relevant in the summer because of more restaurant meals eaten over long weekends or vacations.

Parents such as Samara Weinstein and Jeff Goldstein of Arlington know the scenario with kids’ menus in sit-down restaurants all too well. “It was especially hard to find restaurants serving healthy choices for kids when our girls were young,” Weinstein wrote in an e-mail. “This increased the challenge of raising girls with healthy eating habits.”

It’s true that sit-down restaurants, especially those serving American fare, continue to offer relatively unhealthful choices as the mainstays on kids’ menus — typically chicken fingers, a grilled-cheese sandwich, a hamburger or a hot dog, all served with french fries. Other commonly spotted items are cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese or pasta with a ladle of tomato sauce. However, a few national chains, such as Applebee’s, intersperse a scattering of healthier offerings such as grilled chicken strips, applesauce, and yogurt and strawberries.

On the other hand, many large fast-food outlets have notched up the health quotient of their kids’ meals with superior sides: apple slices, clementines and baby carrots, to name a few. Some have switched the default beverage to low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit juice.

A handful of studies make the link between obesity and the inferior nutrition profiles of restaurant meals for children and adolescents. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics in 2013 showed that when kids consumed these meals they ate more calories, added sugars, total fat, saturated fat and sodium. One more concern about restaurant meals is that they often don’t contain sufficient servings of the foods kids (and all of us) need to eat more of: vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods. According to a Rand Corp. report called Performance Standards for Restaurants, as the frequency of eating out increases, so does the risk of becoming overweight.

Teachable moments

“In the past, restaurant meals were reserved for special occasions,” says Lanette Kovachi, global corporate dietitian for the Subway chain, “but for busy families, restaurant meals are now a regular and necessary part of putting meals on a table anywhere. Parents now lean on restaurants to help feed their family.”

If trend predictors are correct, our kids will continue to frequently fuel up on restaurant meals. No surprise. They’re accessible, fast and convenient! Because it’s likely that restaurants will continue to serve large portions with high counts of fat and sodium, kids are in dire need of adult guidance to help them eat healthier when they eat out. “It’s imperative for their long-term health,” says registered dietitian Lisa Stollman, chief executive of Eat Well Restaurant Nutrition and author of “The Teen Eating Manifesto.”

While your kids are young and impressionable, you can turn restaurant excursions into teachable moments. Embed healthful restaurant eating tips, tricks and tactics as reflexive behaviors they can practice throughout their lives.

Establish family norms: If you eat restaurant meals often, implement the same principles you apply for home-prepared meals. Don’t routinely treat restaurant meals as special occasions. Dessert is a perfect example: “My kids think restaurant meals automatically include dessert, so they request it. However, we usually skip it and explain that dessert isn’t a mandatory part of most restaurant meals,” Kovachi says.

Be a role model: As the sayings go, “actions speak louder than words” and “practice what you preach.” “Kids will follow your lead and eventually stop badgering you if you stick to your principles,” Stollman says.

Skip the kids’ menus in sit-down restaurants: Tell the server you don’t order from kids’ menus. “There are no kids’ menus in Europe,” Stollman points out. “Children are served smaller portions from adult menus.”

Take advantage of kids’ meals in fast-food chains: Some of these meals are now better for us and portion-size-appropriate, especially for younger kids.

Prioritize nutrient-dense foods: “Parents can provide kids who are old enough principles to follow when they order, like including nutrient-dense foods. For example, let children pick their favorite sandwich but specify that it needs to be on whole-grain bread and contain raw vegetables, or a side salad instead of fries or chips,” Kovachi suggests.

Widen kids’ food horizons: Try ethnic restaurants. The fare is easier to share. “We’re lucky in Arlington because we’ve got ethnic restaurants galore, from Thai to Vietnamese, Bolivian, Greek, Indian and more. Our girls have willingly eaten in these restaurants since they were young,” Weinstein says. Ethnic dining also gives kids insights into the vastness of the world and its myriad cultures.

Practice portion control: Control portions by encouraging kids to mix and match more healthful soups, salads, appetizers and/or side dishes served in smaller amounts to create palate-pleasing kid-size meals. Another tip: In fast-food eateries and sandwich shops, split one large sandwich and the fries, chips or other less healthful side items.

Order by consensus, eat family-style: Let everyone scan the menu and offer their input. Come to consensus. My family teases me that we negotiate our restaurant orders. Select fewer entrees than eaters to limit portions. Ask the server to place everything in the middle of the table. Then share it all. You’ll save money and waste less food.

Divvy up dessert: As Kovachi suggests, establish that dessert won’t be part of every restaurant meal. When you do order it, split one serving. “Kids love sweets, so teaching them how to savor a small portion is a valuable lesson,” Kovachi adds.

Quench thirst without added sugars: Steer clear of sugar-sweetened beverages. Opt for no-calorie drinks — water, iced tea or diet soda. Try a splash of lemonade or fruit juice or a squeeze of lemon or lime in club soda. Or choose from nutrient-dense beverages such as fat-free or low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit juice, but limit servings to no more than eight ounces.

Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by the American Diabetes Association, including “Eat Out, Eat Well: The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant,” and the blog EatHealthyLiveWell, found on her Web site, www.hopewarshaw.com.

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