January 9, 2015

Restaurant Meals with Kids – Treat Them to Healthy Teachable Moments

Our kids are growing up with restaurant meals a frequent feature of their food repertoire. That’s truer than ever before. And it’s likely to increase not decrease.


Restaurant foods, whether you eat them in, take them home or eat them on a ball field, are accessible 24/7/365 today. Our pace of life is faster than ever and convenience-driven, particularly when it comes to food. The digital age will forge ahead with technologies to make it even easier and less energy expending to order restaurant foods fast. Meals will be ready and waiting for you in restaurants with the touch of an app. You’ll place your order in sit down restaurants with a digital device. 

You get the picture.

Pile on the sad fact that kids aren’t learning near enough about how to purchase and prepare foods. They’re lack of motivation is understandable with restaurant foods a plenty whenever, whereever. A catch-22, for sure!

Frequent restaurant eating, based on a handful of studies,is an unhealthful practice for kids (and adults as well). Kids eat more calories, total fat and saturated fat and chew fewer servings of fruits, vegetables and milk. Not a big surprise, espeically because they're more likely to dine downscale at fast food chains, sandwich shops or pizza joints.

Recent media headlines crowed about the leveling off of overweight among young pre-schoolers (2- to 5-year-olds) based on a study in JAMA. But, the headlines didn't give a complete status update. The JAMA study conclusions did, “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.”

Yes, our kids are in dire need of skills and strategies to eat healthy restaurant meals.

Here’s a suggestion. While your kids are young and impressionable treat family restaurant excursions (including take out meals) as teachable moments. Treat them as opportunities to embed healthy restaurant eating tips and tactics as reflexive behaviors they can practice through their lives.

Don’t wait. Start early. Make these healthy restaurant eating behaviors simply how your family enjoys these meals, from picking up breakfast or lunch on the go, to ordering take-out pizza to ethnic meals and even upscale dining. 

Tips to teach:

  • If you eat restaurant meals often (a couple of times a week or more), don’t portray them as the special occasions of yesteryear. Think of them as opportunities to practice those same healthy eating habits you put into practice at home. 
  • Be a constant and consistent role model. As the saying goes, “monkey see, monkey do,” or, “actions speak louder than words.” Order healthy foods and don’t overeat. If your children see you practicing these behaviors they’ll follow in your footsteps without you uttering a peep.
  • Don’t let your kids get a hold of those darn kids’ menus. You know the choices all too well. They’re not generally healthy. Plus, this list of meals we pigeon-hole asl “kid-friendly” just further narrow scopes our kids’ palates. Make, “we don’t order from kid’s menus,” a family mantra.
  • Take advantage of kid’s meals in fast food restaurants. They offer smaller portions more right-sized for kids. Today they may come with a serving of fruit and/or vegetable and milk has become the beverage of choice. 
  • Help kids learn to eat smaller portions by encouraging them to choose from the soups, salads, appetizers and side dishes. Mix and match for a healthy and palate pleasing meal that is kid’s size. This may be easier in ethnic restaurants. 
  • Order together from the restaurant’s main menu by seeking input from all diners. Eat family style. Order fewer entrees than people at the table. Put the entrees in the middle of the table and request empty plates for everyone. Then split and share it all. 
  • Expose your children to the wide variety of cuisines. Widen the kaleidoscope of foods they enjoy rather than narrowing it before they’ve even started exploring foods and flavors. Take them to ethnic restaurants, both the common Mexican, Chinese and Italian; and less common Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian and more. Beyond widening their palate these ventures can widen their perspective of the vastness of the world and myriad cultures.
  • Practice portion control as a group in sandwich shops and fast food spots. Try this. When you eat fast food burgers and fries, split a larger order (medium or large size) of French fries (or other less healthy foods) between several or all family members. Order one sandwich and split it. It’s often plenty.
  • If dessert is in the plan divvy it up. Kids love sweets and teaching them how to enjoy and savor small amounts is an important lesson. 
  • Quench thirsts healthfully. Lay low on the ever-plentiful regular soda, fruit drinks, lemonade and the like, unless they’re sweetened with a low-calorie sweetener. Or better yet, opt for water or sparkling water served in most sit-down restaurants. Most restaurants offer low or fat-free milk. Make milk the number one beverage choice whether at home or out. Kids need their milk and aren’t drinking nearly their fill. Fruit juice, as long as it’s 100 percent fruit juice is another option but keep it to small amounts, not a 12 ounces bottle at a sitting. 

Find more tips and tactics for healthy restaurant eating with kids and for people of all ages in my book Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating.

*Obesity was defined as a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile of the sex-specific CDC BMI-for-age growth charts