By: Kristine Bott, M.S., R.D.N.
Eating out at a restaurant can provide many benefits for today’s busy families. Eating out provides a welcome break from meal planning, shopping, and food prepping. It saves time, relieves stress, and best of all, there is no clean up! In addition to the convenience of eating out, many parents find that they are reliant on eating out as they work to juggle busy multi-child schedules which include a difficult balance of school, sports, extracurricular activities and work. As a result, it is not uncommon for today’s families to eat out up to 3-4 times per week.
Unfortunately, finding healthy food options for a child at a restaurant, cafeteria and/or mall can be a daunting task for many parents. It is not uncommon for parents to opt for the “path of least resistance” by allowing children to make food selections from the children’s menu, which typically comes with crayons and/or a treat that wins over the favor of most children and allows for a more peaceful eating environment for the parent.
It’s easier than you think to make good food choices for children when eating out. If you look beyond the kids menu, most restaurants offer healthy meal choices that are tasty and cost effective. Here are some suggestions:
• Keep balance in mind: A fully balanced meal contains all six food groups. Start your meal selection with a lean protein source (such as fish, chicken, beef or vegetarian protein alternative) and then build around this with a grain (such as wild rice, and a steamed vegetable such as broccoli with margarine) and round it off with a bowl of fresh fruit. Kids love cut up veggies and dip. Mandarin fruit cups and apple sauce and apple slices are almost always available!
• Order from the adult menu. Most restaurants offer a wider variety of options in their adult menu. Review some of the family favorites with your kids and offer to share an entree of your choice with your child. Many kids will love feeling that they are getting the opportunity to “order up” and will likely feel grown up and special. Request that your meal be split in half before it is brought out which can make for an easier split.
• Order from the A La Carte Menu. Many restaurants offer a la carte items and this enables you to keep your choices simple. Since these items are not mixed in to a recipe, they can be prepared made to order such as baked, broiled, steamed, without oil, salt which can lead to unwanted fat, salt, sugar and calories.
• Order water or low-fat milk. Regular sodas, juices, and shakes usually contain “empty” calories that kids don’t need. Order your child’s beverage for them and always have the waiter serve water for everyone at the table. If your child can’t tolerate milk, restaurants usually have an assortment of fruit and fruit juices at the bar and can be mixed with carbonated water for a fun kids drink.
• Order a fruit platter for the family to share for dessert. Sharing food can lead to family conversation and ritual and can encourage the modeling of healthy food habits and manners. Most kids love fruit and they especially enjoy dipping things!
In today’s busy world, it’s nice to know that there are convenient, healthy options for families on the run. Busy? Stressed for time? No worries. Following these simple tips will help make your eating out experience simple, enjoyable, fun, and healthy!
Kristine Bott, MS, RDN, has been a Registered Dietitian for more than 20 years and has been practicing Dietetics for more than 25 years with a specialized expertise in the area of eating disorders, and severe malnutrition. At A New Beginning she follows a non-dieting philosophy as her nutritional approach to weight management and when she works with TheHealthyWeighOut program participants she teaches meal planning, shopping, food prep and kitchen skills training. Kristine also co-authored a nutrition/meal planning patient education manual entitled “Meal Planning Handbook- Strategies, Tips and Techniques- A Practical Handbook for Everyone” to assist individuals with managing the real life challenges of meal purchasing, prepping and packing meals to support continued success in their recovery.