Unfortunately, childhood obesity has become an increasing problem over the last few years. Children, like adults, now have very high BMIs, are significantly overweight and are even developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. If your family dines out on a regular basis, it’s important to try to choose a healthy kids meal.
This will help ensure your child is consuming adequate nutrients daily in addition to consuming foods that will support a healthy weight. Review all choices on restaurant menus and use your best judgment so that you and your child can choose a healthy kids meal.
Choose a family-oriented and child-friendly restaurant.
To make choosing a nutritious kids meal a little easier, try to pick a restaurant that is kid or family oriented. They may have more options or allow more substitutions and changes.
- Many fancier or expensive restaurants may not have a kids menu or serve foods that many children would actually want to eat.
- In addition, the chef may not be as willing to make substitutions and changes to the meals or items served.
- Look for a restaurant that has a children’s menu available already. You may want to do some research online or call the restaurant to see what types of menus and foods are available.
- Also, consider asking if the chef is willing to make changes, substitutions or serve smaller portions of items on the regular or adult menu.
Choose a nutritious source of protein.
Everyone needs to consume adequate amounts of protein. Children also need adequate protein. It’s essential for the growth and development of their bodies.
- Start by telling your child to pick out a protein or meat. Give them a list of options or choices that you’ve already pre-selected. This will limit their options and keep them on track.
- Although many kids menu’s offer a fried or high-fat source of protein (like chicken tenders or a hot dog), consider giving them the option of ordering something of the appetizer list or main entree list.
- Grilled, steamed, baked or poached protein options are generally lower in fat and calories. These will be the best and most nutritious choice for your child
- If you can only order a fried or high fat source of protein, that’s OK. Focus on having your child select a more nutritious side.
Always include a fruit or vegetable.
Both fruits and vegetables are full of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. These are essential food groups and should be eaten at each one of your child’s meals.
- Once your child has selected a main dish or source of protein, move on to the side dish. Again, giving them a pre-selected menu or list will help keep them focused. If you’re not offering french fries, buttered pasta or macaroni and cheese they won’t know its available to order.
- Since both fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and very nutritious, you can give your child multiple choices. Emphasize the need for a healthy side if they’ve selected a higher fat or less healthy main dish.
Ask for whole grains.
Another important point to focus on when ordering your child’s meal is selecting a nutritious grain. Going for 100% whole grains is the most nutritious choice and will offer your child a good dose of extra fiber.
- 100% whole grains are much higher in fiber, minerals, and even protein compared to refined grains like white rice or plain pasta.
- Review the menu and check for whole grain options. If you can’t find them, ask the wait staff if they offer whole grains over the refined grains.
- Many restaurants now offer whole grain bread, whole grain noodles or pasta and brown rice as sides. If your child is interested in having one of these options, go for the whole grain versions.
Limit meals that have high-fat options.
Kids meals are notoriously famous for some fried foods. Try to limit the items you order that are higher in fat. They’re usually higher in calories and low in beneficial nutrients.
- Whether it’s chicken nuggets, french fries, a grilled cheese or a hot dog, you might not find the best bets on these kid menus. Try to avoid ordering these types of foods for your child’s meal.
- Ask instead if there are any grilled or lower fat options. For example, do they serve grilled chicken tenders? Would they offer a baked potato? These are better and more nutritious options for your child.
Choose Sugar-Free Beverage Options.
Foods aren’t the only unhealthy item that may be featured on kids menus. Be wary of high calorie, sugar-laden beverages that are often featured on kids menus as well.
- Kids know that restaurants offer a variety of beverages. They may start asking for chocolate milk, lemonade or even soda knowing these options are available. Skip these sugary drinks in favor of something unsweetened
- Again, give your child a menu of choices they can pick from. Leave out options like chocolate milk, lemonade, sweetened tea, sodas, juices and mixed drinks like a Shirley Temple.
- Instead, offer items like water or skim milk. Both of these options are the only drinks children should be drinking. However, an unsweetened tea or the occasional 100% fruit juice isn’t bad.
Teaching Your Children About Nutritious Meals
Read the entire menu. When you go to a restaurant with your children, it’s important to help them review the entire menu. They (or even you) may go straight to the kid’s menu without looking at what else the restaurant offers.
- To find the healthiest or most nutritious option at restaurants, make sure you’re aware of everything that they offer. If you only look at the kid’s menu, you’ll limit your overall options.
- Start with the kid’s menu. Review it and see if there’s an option there that you think would be appropriate for your child. Some kids menu’s offer items like grilled chicken, salmon, and steamed vegetables.
- Review the other parts of the menu. This is an especially good idea if your child isn’t picky about their food choices. You may find something on the appetizer list or sides that are more nutritious than what’s offered on the kid’s menu.
Give your child choices.
When you’re out to eat with your child, you’re most likely going to be the one scanning the entire menu for a nutritious option. Get your child involved in the meal-making decision by giving them a select list of options to choose from
- Scan the menu and come up with 2 or 3 choices that would be appropriate for your child to have. Present these to your child and allow them to choose one of these options.
- If you let your child choose their meals without your influence, they may end up choosing those standard higher fat or fried kids meal options. If you tailor their choices down, they’ll be limited in what they can order.
- Also, if you see a vegetable, fruit or lean protein you know your child already loves, offer this up as an option. This can help entice them to make a healthier choice.
- Consider letting your child choose one nutritious item and one favorite item. If your child is asking for the chicken nuggets, don’t fight them on it. Ask that they skip the fries and choose a more nutritious side.
Show them how to monitor portions.
Kids might not understand the concept of portion control. This is a great teaching point for you to emphasize when you’re out to eat with your family.
- Kids might get excited about having a lot of options when you go out to eat. They’re probably not given many options at home. They may want to order a few things that they don’t get to eat on a regular basis.
- If your child is asking for a few items, talk to them about how their eyes can sometimes be bigger than their stomach. It’s important to only choose a protein and a side when you’re out to eat.
- If your child does want to try more than one item, ask them if splitting those items with a sibling or a parent would be beneficial.
Allow them to choose a kids meal.
You might not want to let your child choose one of those standard fast-food meals with a toy. However, consider allowing your child to choose these meals and talk to them about why these can be a good idea.
- Many fast food restaurants are now offering a fruit as a side with their kids meals. You might get a small fruit salad, a clementine or sliced apples with the meal.
- Kids meals also feature smaller than “small” options. You get kid-sized chicken nuggets or fries which are automatically portion controlled.
- Teach them that these may be good options because they can enjoy some of their favorite foods but still consume a well-balanced meal.
Encouraging Children to Eat Nutritious Foods
Lead by example. Regardless of what habit you’re trying to get your child to pick up, you’ll be most successful if you lead by example. If you’re not choosing a healthy meal at a restaurant, your child most likely won’t either.
- When you’re out to eat, make sure that you choose a healthy option. This will show your child how to order, but also ensure you’re having a nutritious meal as well.
- If you’re craving something higher in calorie (like a cheeseburger) skip a higher calorie side and order something a little more nutritious. This can teach your child about compromising when you order a favorite item.
- The more consistent you are with making healthy choices and offering them healthy choices, the more they’ll come to fall into this routine.
Talk positively about nutritious foods.
You may choose to go out to dinner so you can indulge in some of your favorite foods – especially if you don’t cook them at home. Instead of talking about unhealthy foods, talk positively about healthy and nutritious foods in front of your children.
- Like being a role model, your children hear the comments you make about foods. Avoid talking negatively about healthy items. For example, don’t talk about how you don’t like vegetables or don’t think they taste good. Your children will pick up on this and mimic this behavior.
- Focus on saying encouraging words about healthy eating. Talk about how vegetables taste delicious or you enjoy eating fresh fruit for dessert. This will help your child understand the importance of healthy eating.
Serve nutritious and well-balanced meals at home.
If you want your child to make healthy choices at restaurants or to ask for more nutritious foods, make sure you’re setting that example at home. If children are used to eating items like macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets on a regular basis, they’ll continue to ask for those foods when you go out to eat.
- Set the basis for healthy eating with home cooked meals. If you’re normally serving lean protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, this will become your child’s normal way of eating. They’re more likely to ask for similar items at restaurants.
- Also, don’t treat restaurant meals differently than home cooked meals. Many people treat eating out as a special occasion or a time to treat themselves to higher calorie or unhealthier foods. Your child will catch onto this so treat home cooked and restaurant meals similarly.
Widen your child’s food horizons.
Another great way to get your child to eat healthier options at restaurants is by introducing them to new foods. You can try going to ethnic restaurants to help expose your child to new foods.
- Your child may not always like the traditional healthy and nutritious foods that are offered at restaurants. Plain steamed broccoli or grilled chicken may not be very tempting.
- Try taking your child to a new restaurant or an ethnic restaurant where they’d be exposed to some of these same nutritious foods that are prepared in a very different manner.
- For example, they may not like steamed broccoli but enjoy vegetable tempura. They may also enjoy a curry dish or even pasta primavera with vegetables. Ask your child if they’d be interested in trying some of these new dishes.