Nothing makes a child feel more grown up than going out to eat. Yet children, like adults, eat significantly more calories at restaurant meals than they do when eating at home. In fact, the children’s menu is often the least healthy section of a menu! Think about the typical children’s fare. Chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, pizza, hamburgers and hotdogs. And don’t forget the side dish that accompanies them all: french fries. To make it worse, most kids’ meals come with free dessert.
But eating out does not have to be a nutritional disaster. Follow these ten guidelines and your child can enjoy a restaurant meal without sacrificing good nutrition.
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Many fast food and restaurant chains post nutritional information on their websites. If you frequent a favorite chain and often choose certain menu items, be sure you look up the nutritional data online. You may be amazed by the calories, saturated fat and sodium in your favorite dish.
Going to a restaurant that doesn’t post their nutrition information online? You can still learn a lot from a simple web search. Go to the calorie-count or calorieking websites and type in the name of the dish you usually order. These websites have average nutritional information for thousands of foods. Chances are, you will find what you are looking for.
2. READ THE MENU CAREFULLY
Make sure you know what you are ordering. Pay attention to the descriptions on the menu. Dishes labeled deep-fried, pan-fried, basted, batter-dipped, breaded, creamy, crispy are usually high in calories.
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SPECIAL ORDER
Many menu items would be healthy if they were prepared differently. Small substitutions often lead to major calorie savings. Be sure to tell your waiter that you are trying to eat healthy. Most restaurants are happy to prepare your food the way you would like it.
Ask for your vegetables and main dishes to be served with the sauce on the side. If your food is fried or cooked in oil or butter, ask to have it broiled or steamed. Some restaurants even have non-fat cooking spray in the kitchen! When I go to a restaurant, I always ask for “no butter, no oil, no mayo”. These ingredients are often stuck into dishes where you least expect them.
4. SKIP THE KID’S MENU
The kid’s menu is usually the least healthy section of the menu. I like to avoid it altogether. Many restaurants will allow you to choose ‘half-orders’ of dishes on the adult menu. If the restaurant doesn’t do half-orders, consider splitting a dish with your child. Which brings us to our next tip…
5. WATCH YOUR PORTIONS SIZES!
Watch portion size; share or bring leftovers home. At a typical restaurant, a single serving provides enough for at least two meals. Even children’s menu portions are overblown! To overcome this obstacle, take half of your meal home or divide the portion with a dining partner.
It is best to decide how much your child should eat as soon as the dish is served. How many times have you told yourself you would only eat half your dish and then sat at the table picking at the plate until it was finished? Kids do the same thing. When your child’s meal is served and is overflowing, ask the waiter for an extra plate. Place an appropriate portion on your child’s plate and hand the rest to the waiter to wrap up.
6. AVOID BUFFETS
Avoid buffets, even seemingly healthy ones like salad bars. You’ll likely overeat to get your money’s worth. If you do choose buffet dining, opt for fresh fruits, salads with low-fat or fat-free dressings, broiled entrees and steamed vegetables. Resist the temptation to go for seconds or wait at least 20 minutes after eating to make sure you’re still hungry before going back up to the buffet.
7. CHOOSE CALORIE-FREE BEVERAGES
Remember that soda and juice are both huge sources of hidden calories. Try switching to water with lemon or unsweetened iced tea.
8. EAT MINDFULLY
Encourage your kids to eat mindfully. Mindful eating means paying attention to what you eat and savoring each bite. Being mindful also means noticing when you are almost full and laying down your fork. Mindful eating relaxes you so you digest better and makes you feel more satisfied. Teach your children to really taste their food and pay attention to what they are eating.
9. SLOW DOWN!
If your children are shoveling their food into their mouths, they won’t be able to tell that they are full. It takes twenty minutes for your body to realize it is satisfied. Have them put their forks down between bites or take a sip of water between mouthfuls. If your kids finish their meals in less time and still feel hungry, ask them to wait. Once the full twenty minutes has passed, they will probably no longer feel hungry.
10. REMEMBER THE BIG PICTURE
Think of eating out in the context of your whole diet. If it is a special occasion or you know you want to order your favorite meal at a nice restaurant, cut back on your other meals that day. Moderation is always key, but planning ahead can help you relax and enjoy your dining out experience without sacrificing good nutrition or diet control.
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