by Althea Zanecosky
The National Restaurant Association estimates that Americans annually eat more than 70 billion meals and snacks in restaurants.
The growing numbers of overweight and obese children mean that adults need to take more responsibility for helping children make good choices. When you’re dining out with your kids, it’s important to know how to make good fast food and restaurant selections.
Nearly one-third of children eat fast food every day, and those children who do eat fast food tend to consume more calories on a daily basis than other kids.
Studies from the Center for Science in the Public show that children eat nearly twice as many calories at a restaurant as they would when they eat at home. These increased calories lead to increased pounds and add to the child’s risk of becoming overweight.
Help is out there! Check out these resources:
• HealthyDiningFinder.com, a new website, helps diners search for healthy menu options nationwide by ZIP code, address or restaurant.
The site, staffed by dietitians and other nutrition experts and funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Restaurant Foundation, lists menu items that measure up in such areas as calories (no more than 750 for an entree), fat (a maximum of 25 grams per meal) and deep-fried items (they’re banned in anything other than “very small” amounts).
About 30,000 restaurant locations are listed, representing nearly 250 chains and a handful of independents.
• Before it ceased publication recently, Child magazine surveyed the healthiest spots for dining out with kids. Titled The 10 Best Res-tau-rants for Families, this five-month project examined the children’s menus from more than 125 of the largest full-service chains.
Each menu was initially evaluated on these basic criteria: whether it contained at least two to four nutritious entrees, included a vegetable besides french fries and offered milk among its beverage choices. Child’s website remains active, so you can see the survey results at www.child.com.
• When Lea Davis went from a job as a founding editor of a magazine for fast-food industry executives to parenthood, her perspective changed.
She used her expertise to filter restaurant news and information to other parents through www.quickservekids.com. This website helps parents figure out how to raise their “Quicksies” to make good choices in a fast food world.
• The chain that brought us the highly successful Jared weight-loss TV ad campaign has taken menu fitness a step farther. Subway has introduced its new Subway Fresh Fit menu, a full line of better-for-you adult and kid menu items.
The new menu options seek to provide adults and kids with better on-the-go meals consisting of a low-fat, 4-inch sandwich and “fit” sides and beverages including sliced apples, raisins, and 1-percent milk.
Subway says the meals are based on sensible serving sizes, are low in cholesterol, total and saturated fat, and are a good source of nutrients such as vitamin C, calcium, and iron. www.subwayfreshbuzz.com/freshfit/meals.aspx
Plan Ahead. If you know you’re going out at night, feed the kids lower-fat foods earlier in the day.
Beware the chicken nuggets. Sorry imposters, they’re precooked in partially hydrogenated oils, then deep-fried. Steer kids toward lower-fat alternatives like pasta or a chicken sandwich. If you have more than one child, consider having them split an order of nuggets and a more nutritious offering.
Order the kid’s meal with some substitutions. Children often love the kid’s meal more for the fun box and toys than for the food. Ask to substitute healthier choices for the soda and the fries if possible. Many restaurants will let you substitute fruit salad, applesauce, or a baked potato for french fries. If not, order a single serving of fries for the table.
Say no to soda. Try low-fat milk or chocolate milk instead, or failing that, water or diet soda.
Healthy up your pizza. Introduce veggie toppings gradually and kids may learn to like mushrooms, peppers, broccoli and onions on their pizza.
Don’t ban dessert. Most of all, eating out should be fun. Keep the sugar and fat at reasonable levels by ordering from the kids’ menu with its smaller portions or by opting for a single adult dessert and spoons for everybody.
Remember that you are modeling food habits, so when you are eating out with the kids, follow healthy eating guides yourself!
Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.